What’s the point of watching horror movies? An often argued reason is catharsis. Horror movies have a unique way of dredging up cultural anxieties and playing them to their worst ends on screen, so when the lights come up, we can say, “it’s only a movie,” and dismiss those fears away. Eli Roth has managed to do this in artful, cheeky ways with his films “Cabin Fever” (flesh-eating viruses!) and “Hostel” and “Hostel Part Two” (commercialized torture!). In his latest effort, “The Green Inferno,” he works out that oh-so-scary fear of … hashtag activism? Coupled with a throwback, retro cannibalism storyline that is groan-worthy, Roth’s “The Green Inferno” is a flop of a horror film that overestimates gore for actual scares.
You have to wonder if Roth completely forgot or just abandoned traditional horror filmmaking, where screams and suspense are meted out over the course of a film in order to keep the tension flowing. The first half of “The Green Inferno” is a dull, half-baked eco drama where Columbia University freshman Justine (Lorenza Izzo) links up with a group of activists headed to the Amazon rainforest to livestream and shame developers who are threatening the land of an ancient tribe.
Though the protest appears to be a success, when the students’ plane crashes in the jungle — with them outfitted in “BioGas” jumpsuits to infiltrate the worksite — it’s time for the horror to begin. The indigenous Amazonian tribe, mistaking them for developers, hauls them back to their village for a barbecue, in which they are the main course.
What follows isn’t so much as scary as it just is unwatchable. You’re either going to be able to watch bodies torn limb from limb, roasted, and happily feasted on or you’re not, that’s for you to decide.
The one thing that Roth has preserved from horror tropes is the Final Girl, a role that Justine fits to a T. There’s even a gruesome ritual to check the status of her virginity, which is Final Girl Rule Number One. But this doesn’t play on that horror trope, but rather just ties back to the continual task of situating the tribe as different, foreign and other. If one thing is clear, it’s that Roth’s real anxieties lie in foreigners and their mysterious customs.
It’s surprising that Roth has managed to turn in something so uninspired and dour; as a student and expert of the horror genre, his craft is usually masterful, but it feels like he got confused with who the villain is and where the scares should go. Essentially, the student activists are to blame for their own predicament, including charismatic but callous leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), and while the Amazonian tribe brings the pain, the film doesn’t want to indict them as the boogeyman.
It’s clear that Roth was trying to say something about the brave new world of social media enabled social justice, and public shame as a tool for change, but the message is garbled. That it comes wrapped in a horror package that just isn’t truly scary or suspenseful is the real shame though.