For anyone who thought the “Hostel” movies were a barrel of laughs but needed more cannibalism and less cultural sensitivity, helmer Eli Roth is finally back in theaters with “The Green Inferno.” This dopey homage to an infamously unappetizing subgenre of grindhouse filmmaking made its festival debut back in 2013 and endured an aborted release attempt last year — apt delays for a project that boasts all the appeal (and aroma) of a carcass rotting in the rainforest. Ultimately unleashed as the first wide release from Blumhouse’s BH Tilt imprint, “Inferno” eked out a modest opening weekend on its way toward cult-item obscurity.
In a way, the prolonged path to theaters works to Roth’s advantage. He’s been absent from the director’s chair since 2007’s underperforming “Hostel II,” and “Inferno” would’ve made for an entirely anti-climactic comeback if not for the imminent arrival of his follow-up, the Keanu Reeves starrer “Knock Knock,” which made the festival rounds earlier this year and hits theaters in just two weeks. Arguably Roth’s most mature movie to date, “Knock Knock” makes “Inferno” look even more like the nadir of an unapologetically lowbrow resume.
Both pics share the same leading lady, Chilean model and actress Lorenza Izzo, who wed Roth in real life last year. (The mind boggles at what point during filming that particular romantic spark was lit.) In “Inferno,” Izzo plays college freshman Justine, the daughter of a United Nations lawyer (Richard Burgi) who wants to make her own mark fighting injustice in the world.
Fired up after a lecture on female genital mutilation and more than a little attracted to alluring campus rabble-rouser Alejandro (Ariel Levy), Justine dismisses the advice of sardonic roommate Kaycee (singer Sky Ferreira, seemingly auditioning for Tim Burton) and signs up for Alejandro’s protest in the Amazon rainforest. In what may be intended as meta-foreshadowing of the literal torture to come, this excruciating setup takes roughly a half-hour to get through and is filled with bon mots like Kaycee telling Justine “Activism’s so f—ing gay” before she boards a plane bound for Peru.
It’s not until after Alejandro’s protest appears to succeed and the self-satisfied gang crash in the jungle on their return trip that Roth arrives at his raison d’etre. We’re at the film’s halfway point when the cannibal tribe finally bare their teeth and one of Justine’s new pals becomes a light snack as his horrified cohorts look on from their communal cage. The village elder (Antonieta Pari, physically striking in a role tailor-made to inspire exceptional Halloween costumes) delights in plucking out eyes and tearing out a tongue, before the victim is torn limb from limb and stuffed into an outdoor oven for everyone to enjoy.
This stomach-churning imagery — extreme enough to make one question the R rating — sets expectations the rest of the film can’t quite deliver on, and gorehounds may wind up disappointed that “The Green Inferno” ultimately isn’t as transgressive as Roth’s “Hostel”-fueled reputation might promise.
Instead, auds are in for relatively perfunctory throat-slittings and survival shenanigans, laced with a hearty helping of juvenile humor. Between one of the captives experiencing a bout of explosive diarrhea and another formulating a plan to get their captors high by stuffing a corpse with a bag of weed, it seems as if Roth was as inspired by Cheech and Chong as he was by Ruggero Deodato (whose notorious “Cannibal Holocaust” provides “The Green Inferno” with its title — the exact same as found-footage forerunner “Cannibal’s” film-within-a-film).
By utilizing stunning practical locations and actual members of Peru’s Callanayacu tribe to play the cannibals, Roth gives the film a veneer of authenticity that belies the trashy banality of his script. At least the eye-popping locales (perfect backdrops for a friendly eye-gouging) allow his creative collaborators — including d.p. Antonio Quercia and production designer Marichi Palacios — the opportunity to strut their stuff.
A queasy sense of xenophobia is de rigueur in a genre noted for its bad taste, and although Roth doesn’t exactly avoid that tradition, his obvious contempt for the American interlopers (mostly portrayed as one-dimensional irritants by the undistinguished ensemble) overrides the lack of meaningful characterizations for the indigenous players. When it comes to young people eager to change the world, Roth appears to be validating Kaycee’s point of view. But empty cynicism isn’t a substitute for well-reasoned critique, and Roth winds up looking more clueless than the so-called “social justice warriors” he’s trying to satirize.