The Green Inferno was another name by which Antonio Climati’s 1988 film Cannibal Holocaust II was known. Not only that, but it was also the title of the film-within-a-film in Ruggero Deodato’s original Cannibal Holocaust from 1980; a less than subtle nod from Eli Roth to the horror subgenre he here plays homage to. Roth’s Inferno is date stamped 2013, and has taken the best part of three years to reach us, long enough for his subsequent film Knock Knock to overtake it.
While you’d be forgiven for assuming this delay has been caused by controversy over the film’s explicit content, the reasons are far more conventional; quite simply it lost distribution when Worldview Entertainment ran into financial difficulties. But ultimately 2013 or 2016, it makes no difference; Roth’s film is curiously – perhaps even purposefully – out of step with the times, both in terms of modern horror’s present interests and, one imagines, in terms of what people in the 21st century even want to spend their time with.
Lorenza Izzo stars as Justine, freshman idealist drawn to a group of activists on campus who are planning an excursion to the Peruvian jungle to demonstrate against deforestation. Charmed by the group’s arrogant leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), Justine and her roomie Kaycee (Sky Ferreira) have just enough time to take in a not-entirely-unrelated class about FGM (female genital mutilation, if you’re not familiar with the acronym) before Justine jets off to make the poorest of poor life choices.
Whaddayknow, things go wrong. Not only at the demonstration site, where Alejandro turns out to have a hidden agenda which takes advantage of Justine’s presence, but on the return journey. One downed plane later, and the group’s numbers are already diminishing. The red-skinned locals – a tribe of cannibals – aim to reduce those numbers further. Not only that, but FGM is firmly back on the agenda. Just as well we had that little lesson earlier, huh?
Roth approaches his entire subject with the same unapologetic fratboy gaudiness that he’s made his trademark over the years. This shouldn’t be surprising, and it isn’t. Co-author of this dubious material, his dialogue is as clunky as ever, reveling in stupidity. His insistence on cluttering scenes with the uglier tropes of modern slang may in his eyes make his characters seem more real. In reality, it simply makes them harder to sympathise with. There’s a motley crew here, and not one of them is particularly credible. Even the poor fat guy crushing on Justine is too much of a cliché to be taken seriously.
Aware of what he’s planning from the get-go, Roth trades on the audience’s patience and/or faith that the last 40 minutes is going to provide the grizzly goods we’ve misguidedly turned up for. Still, he could’ve provided us some sustenance to get there. Much of the first hour is merely time-killing. One sequence sees Daryl Sabara’s Lars nearly bitten on the penis by a tarantula. Presumably this passes for comic relief. As Lars himself says, “this isn’t funny”.
It’s only once events take their repulsive turn that The Green Inferno comes into its own, relatively speaking. It is easy to sympathise with Izzo’s Justine, so scenes which place her in immediate danger do crackle with embers of suspense. She’s the only one bestowed with such generosity, however. The film’s most genuinely funny moment is the lamest of escape attempts made by our supposed heroes. That this generates such a smirk is a testament to how odious Roth has made his ensemble; we’re on the side of the savage natives at that point.
Their depiction is as retrograde as you might expect – a Republican nightmare in garish Technicolor – and some of their actions are indeed nauseating, so Roth succeeds there. But truthfully, when compared to its lo-fi forebearers of the late 70’s / early 80’s, The Green Inferno feels (ironically) a little green. As scuzzy and suspicious as the effects were in those films, they worked within the no-budget frameworks they appeared in and as a result read as more gruesome and disturbing than Roth’s more ‘realistic’ gushes of gore. It’s an odd contradiction to experience; a film that is at once disgusting but, one feels, only within a relatively safe remit.
Having said that, the real stars here are the make-up and visual effects team along with production designer Marichi Riverio. In combination they make the latter part of the film the most visually interesting and arresting in equal measure. It’s just a shame that the acting and story aren’t on such an impressive footing. That the film’s technical merits are it’s most laudable is an open criticism of Roth’s ability to engage his audience.
Like the Italian filmmakers before him, Roth presumably hopes to hold the film’s liberal eco message up as a shield to its detractors, but this message is sullied by Alejandro’s two-faced pragmatism in the middle of the movie, and doesn’t ever really recover. The same goes for the issue of FGM, which is only really raised here in act one so that it’s threat can be grimly appreciated in act three.
A mixed report all round then. What feels like a passable ride through a particularly retro brand of horror filmmaking finally comes unglued in the end credits, which are interrupted in order to tease / threaten a sequel; a scenario which rings as thoroughly unnecessary and asks viewers to question exactly how worthwhile this excursion was. One trip into the jungle is more than enough, Eli.