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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.20.14] horror

[Editor's Note: This review was first published in 2014, when The Green Inferno played EIFF]

Having never been a particularly big fan of Eli Roth's previous films I was surprised at how successful and well constructed Green Inferno turned out to be. Envisioned as a paean to the enduring horror classic Cannibal Holocaust, it manages to balance genuine horror, tension and suspense with a sense of fun which I was not expecting. Given Roth's track record I was anticipating something excruciating and basically unpleasant, but it's more a gory romp with some wicked black humour thrown in for good measure.

We follow a group of self-righteous but naive middle-class American student activists as they travel to Peru to protest the destruction of the rainforest. They bring their camera phones to stream live coverage of their campaign over the internet, and to act as a measure of safety against the private security firm hired to oversee the development. Their newest recruit is the innocent Justine (Lorenza Izzo) who has a crush on the charismatic Alejando (Ariel Levy), a bearded ethno-hipster who leads the group and takes himself so seriously that he acts as a parody of the brooding idealist. Justine's father is a lawyer with the United Nations, and we're led to believe that Alejando is using her connection to further his cause. When their plane goes down in the jungle the local natives discover the traumatised survivors, and, well, things get rather nasty...

Roth spends a reasonable amount of time building up to the moment of the crash and in doing so allows us to get to know the characters before they're captured. In watching them interact beforehand and discuss their reasons for wanting to take the trip, Roth lets us see that their motives are not altogether altruistic, and that some are labouring under the misapprehension that this is more a holiday and excuse to party than a serious operation. When the characters realise the kind of danger they've found themselves in, it's satisfying to watch the more deserving get picked off first, often thanks to their own stupidity and selfishness.

Although Green Inferno is demonstrably indebted to Cannibal Holocaust (which I haven't seen) and Cannibal Ferox (which I have) it's not as nasty or gruesome as I had expected. The special effects by the legendary Greg Nicotero are very inventive and very bloody, but they take place in a context of heavy irony that's more akin to Cabin In The Woods (review) or Planet Terror than the films it's paying homage to. While those '70s flicks are pretty horrible and grimy, Green Inferno's slick style and sarcastic sense of humour keep it from becoming so strong that we forget it's just a bit of entertainment. There are plenty of well executed, violent shock moments but they don't linger too long, and most of the really unsettling stuff comes from seeing the characters' reactions to their situation - as when they are led into the tribe's village and groped by the crowd of hostile natives. Watching these well-intentioned kids reduced to babbling wrecks while being clumsily fondled and dragged towards a cage decorated with human remains is easily the most effective moment in the entire film.

The performances are impressive across the board, with the actors projecting the requisite sense of terror when necessary, but sticking true to their characters and adding little touches here and there which give them some life. Izzo's Justine is vulnerable and kind-hearted, but can fight when she's called upon to do so; Levy's Alejandro is stoic to begin with but soon shows his true colours when faced with reality; while the supporting cast are all solid, particularly Nicolás Martínez as Daniel - the only really decent guy in the group. The actual tribespeople used as extras, who had famously never acted nor even experienced a film before, are genuinely great in projecting a kind of 'otherness' which any westerner would find creepy. The head of the tribe is played by Antonieta Pari, and she almost steals the show.

The trailer places emphasis on the more horrific elements of the film, which is understandable given Roth's involvement and the desire to pack in an audience, but this gives a skewed impression of the overall tone. Character interactions and the inevitable formation of a plan of escape lead to some pretty amusing and imaginative developments, including the creative use of mobile phone ringtones and a large bag of marijuana (!) and this helps the narrative stay in motion rather than allowing the story to become a long dark slog of torture-porn and screaming. The press showing was quite early in the morning and I was braced for something altogether less fast paced and comical, but the film actually develops a kind of 'Scooby-doo' type quality for which I was very grateful.

One aspect of the film which bugged me was the sexual degradation which is experienced by some of the female members of the group. This is part of the overall story arc for one of the characters and as such I can see why it was included, but it seemed rather gratuitous nonetheless and stuck out as an ill-conceived idea in an otherwise fine flick.

So there you have it. Green Inferno: a solid thumbs up from me, if you like this sort of thing.

Recommended Release: Cannibal Ferox (Blu-ray Deluxe Edition)

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