It doesn’t pay to travel when Eli Roth is planning the trip. He’s the anti-Rick Steves. Roth is responsible for “Cabin Fever” (2002), “Hostel” (2005), and “Hostel, Part II” (2007), films that inspired the term “torture porn,” subjecting their characters, often spoiled young American vacationers looking for cheap thrills and thrifty accommodations, to such grisly fates that even the movies’ promotional posters have challenged the MPAA. With “Aftershock,” though, Roth himself is along for the ride; he’s co-writer of the film with Chilean director Nicolás López and the latter’s collaborator, Guillermo Amoedo, but also appears onscreen in a leading role. Maybe that’s why he brings a lighter touch to the graphic gore, though not to the cynical, sadistic moralism.
Unlike his previous onscreen incarnation as the baseball-bat-wielding Nazi hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (he is also billed in “Hostel, Part II” as “head on a stick”), here Roth plays a bumptious American abroad referred to simply as “Gringo.” He’s on vacation in Chile’s resort port of Valparaiso with a couple of local pals: tubby, bearded, and obnoxiously nouveau riche Pollo (played by Nicolás Martínez, perhaps the Zach Galifianakis of Chile), and lovelorn Ariel (Ariel Levy), who, like Gringo, is inept when it comes to having a good time. Luckily, what Pollo lacks in charm and attractiveness he makes up for in connections; his dad is loaded and the family name and money are the trio’s entrée to good times in the best places. When one fellow turista complains to Gringo that Chile’s pleasures are the same as those you can find anywhere else, that she was hoping for something “Third World but cool, like Bali,” he assures her that the country is the “indie station of Latin America.”
With such crass insensitivity to world suffering established, the agents of slasher movie justice begin stirring. So, too, does the earth. When the group takes in yet another strobe-lit, throbbing club, this one underground, their petty pleasures and squabbling are interrupted by a shaky camera, collapsing masonry, squashed disco kings, gruesome impalings, and some low comedy with a severed hand. Disaster movie meets slasher flick as an earthquake strikes, burying the club and its glittery revelers. At this point I thought the setting might serve as a clever allegory of the socioeconomic structure of capitalist society, as is the case with the inverted cruise ship in “The Poseidon Adventure.” Instead, the three friends, plus three women they’ve picked up, find a short cut to the surface, where much worse than an act of God awaits them: the human element, starting with a handbag snatcher and ending with the entire Chilean prison population set free by the disaster and on the prowl.
Though offering some chilling twists on the usual conventions, employing wit and restraint where otherwise the filmmakers might have relied on the contents of an abattoir, “Aftershock” is ultimately predictable in its litany of who lives and who dies, and doesn’t try to be too ironic or self-reflexive about it. Instead, crude, Old Testament justice is done; the rich, privileged, and female might head the list of those punished, but in Roth’s movies, everyone is booked for the same trip.