Eli Roth is my generation’s Ryan Murphy. Which probably makes no sense, given that Roth never created a television show about teenagers singing pop songs. But Roth, like Murphy, has redefined what horror can look like and how popular it can be. Murphy did it with American Horror Story; Roth did it a decade earlier with Cabin Fever, and then with every single movie he’s ever directed, written, produced, acted in, or just had a strong opinion about. The difference is, Roth was making transcendent horror back when stories about frighteningly creative serial killers weren’t quite so fashionable. Roth gets regularly eviscerated for the same reasons Murphy is celebrated.
Tomorrow, Roth’s latest sure-to-be-a-blockbuster The Last Exorcism Part II (which he produced) opens nationwide. Will it be as critically beloved as Murphy’s equally devil-possessed murderers? Probably not. I called Roth to see if he cares. As it turns out, not so much.
Did you make a Last Exorcism sequel because the story wasn’t over yet, or because the first one made a shit-ton of money?
Well, any time a movie makes a shit-ton of money, you have to think about doing another one.
Is that a Hollywood rule?
It is, yeah. They fire you from Hollywood if you don’t think that way. When you make a film for a million and a half dollars and it opens at 20 million, the next question out of everyone’s mouth is, “When’s the next one, when’s the next one, when’s the next one?”
It took you long enough to make the sequel. The first Last Exorcism came out in, what, 2010?
Yeah, 2010. That’s like a lifetime ago.
Were you just too busy making haunted houses?
We spent a long time developing the script. The last thing we wanted to do was rush a sequel. Because we felt like, well, people loved the first one, and whether it takes us six months or ten years to come out with a second one, we were pretty sure that the anticipation would still be there. Part of the fun of the first one is that it’s an open-ended movie. You don’t exactly know what happened.
I still have fucking nightmares about it.
[Laughs.] I love that.
I bet you do. Sicko.
That’s the nice thing about making a movie for a million and a half dollars. You can have an ending that makes people go, “What the fuck just happened?” And some people think they know what it meant, and some people don’t, and they fight about it. We knew that was going to happen, and I think that’s great. I still get into arguments with friends about John Carpenter’s The Thing, about whether he was a thing or not.
Does the Last Exorcism sequel have that “what the fuck just happened” factor?
To an extent, yeah. The breakthrough for us was when we decided not to do another documentary. The first one was so much about this guy making a confessional documentary. To do that again, what’s it going to be? A documentary about what happened to the other documentary crew?
Sure. I’d pay to see that.
Well, we decided to go another way.
So did the director of the Blair Witch Project sequel. And we all know how that turned out.
Oh, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re talking about. We didn’t want to do that. We went with a straight narrative, but it acknowledged the first film. In the world of Last Exorcism Part II, the first film exists but as a viral video. It’s just something that’s floating around out there on the Internet that people are watching and nobody knows who did it and nobody knows if it’s real. And then — [Roth goes on to explain most of the plot for the Last Exorcism Part II, which sounds awesome and really fucking scary, but we won’t be sharing any of it, because we’re not assholes who spoil movies. You’re welcome, everybody who might want to see this.]
[Laughs.] Insane, right?
What the hell is wrong with Satan?
Well… he’s Satan, for one thing.
Are you expecting any protests for the premiere? Any picketing from churches accusing you of blasphemy?
I’m not, actually. If it’s anything like the first one, we won’t get any protests at all.
I’m so sorry.
Thank you. I was a little disappointed when the first one came out and there was nothing. No death threats, no condemnations by the Catholic Church. Not a peep. Up until then, I had a perfect streak of protests.
Wasn’t Cabin Fever officially condemned by the Catholic Church?
It was, yeah. But remember, the Catholic Church was one of the biggest supporters of The Exorcist.
The one from the ’70s?
Yeah. They loved it because it scared people into believing. And with our Exorcism, it was actually a very pro-faith film. The religious father character — he was the only one who was right in the end. So it has a strong, almost religious message. We showed it very specifically to religious groups, and they loved it. The Church didn’t go so far as to endorse us, but they thought we treated religion and the subject matter very, very intelligently and respectfully. It wasn’t mocking people that were devout.
Does controversy really sell tickets? Take, for example, something like Django Unchained.
An amazing movie.
You’ve collaborated with Tarantino a few times. Inglourious Basterds, Grindhouse…
I’ve been very lucky.
Spike Lee criticized him for making light of slavery in Django. Was that a good thing from a marketing perspective? Does bad publicity help a movie or hurt it?
It definitely doesn’t hurt. If there’s something controversial, it gets people talking. But I think people went to see Django because of Tarantino and Jamie Foxx. You can have all the controversy you want, but that’s not going to do anything if the movie isn’t any good. There’ve been examples of controversy selling tickets and examples of when it turned into a non-troversy. With Django, I don’t think it turned into a real controversy. It just looked like sour grapes.
Was Spike overreacting? Or missing the point?
I can’t speak for him. I read his statement and thought it was ridiculous, but obviously his opinion is his opinion. People feel differently. That’s how he feels, and I can only speak for myself. Whether something is controversial or not, I think people go to see a movie because they think it’ll be good. Fans trust me, they trust my taste in horror. They know I’m not going to put my name on something unless I’m really excited about it.
Do you see yourself doing exclusively horror for the foreseeable future? Or do you want to mix it up with a genre that nobody would expect of you?
I don’t know. A musical maybe?
I would love to do a musical!
Don’t toy with us, Eli.
No, I’m not kidding.
You would do a musical? A Cabin Fever musical?
No, no, I would never… [Long pause.] Actually, that’s not a terrible idea.
Okay, maybe not that. But I would love to do a musical. I’d love to do a comedy as well. This year I did a thriller called Aftershock, which I co-wrote and produced and starred in. My friend Nicolás López directed it. I also co-wrote and produced The Man with the Iron Fists, which is a martial-arts movie with RZA and Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu. It exercised another side of my creativity. I want to keep doing that, keep stretching myself and trying new things.
You could be like the next Ryan Murphy.
You don’t want to be the next Ryan Murphy?
No, no, he’s done very well for himself.
He went from Glee to American Horror Story.
So maybe I could go from horror to TV shows about glee clubs?
Have you watched either season of American Horror Story?
Yeah, I saw the first season, and I really enjoyed it.
It doesn’t seem like a show like that could exist in a pre-Eli Roth world.
It is very sweet of you to say. When Cabin Fever came out ten years ago, people told me that horror was dead. Nobody wanted to see it. Horror was going straight to video. And now horror is extremely profitable and it’s vile and dark and characters get killed off. Everybody told me I had to make Cabin Fever PG-13. And the reason it took me, God, six years to get the money to make it is because everybody told me that my character had to live at the end. So we could get a sequel.
Apparently sequels are where the real money is.
Right, right. So I think that horror, regardless of what I was doing, was ready to break into the mainstream. Look at comic books. It used to be something that only geeks were into. And now it’s everywhere.
Is there any part of you that’s jealous of American Horror Story?
I say this as an admitted fan of yours, but it seems strange that American Horror Story, which I also love, is getting Emmys and Golden Globes and Time magazine says it’s “gorgeously realized.”
Good for them. That’s great. Murphy should be proud.
But I don’t see the difference between what he’s doing and what you’ve done, which critics have called “sadistic, pandering, pornographic violence.”
Well, obviously, a lot of that is completely ridiculous.
Why is what Ryan Murphy does art and what you do sadistic pornography?
Many of the critics who attacked Hostel II hadn’t even seen the movie, and you could tell that they hadn’t seen the movie because of the way they wrote about it. And the truth is, a part of me obviously likes pushing buttons and being the one who offends everybody. I can’t explain where that comes from. But I love it and I think I can take the hit. I don’t really care if they call what I do pornography.
It’s kind of silly.
I find it hilarious. When people write these eviscerations of me, I can’t believe someone got that mad about a movie. I find it all totally absurd. I love movies. I mean, I really, really love movies. But I’ve never been so affected by a movie that it’s made me want to lash out like that. I feel flattered by their vitriol. It means I did a good job.
Maybe if your movies made less money? Would that legitimize them?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I find it so funny that these art-house movies come out, and they have the same kind of murder and torture that’s in my movies, but because it’s less mainstream or whatever, it’s a “creative aesthetic.” For me, the truth is in the numbers.
The mob can’t be all wrong?
Right, yeah. If what I did was just pornographic trash, they would’ve been forgotten by now. People are still discovering the two Hostel movies. Residual checks still keep coming in after I was told they would stop years ago. Film has a life far beyond the outraged bloggers.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)