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The family cut-up

With a love of humor and horror nurtured in his youth, Eli Roth seeks to make movies that are real screams

It's a packed house at the Copley Place cinema for Eli Roth's Boston debut on Saturday night. They're all there: Newton buddies, Mom and Dad, Aunt Gladys. Roth, in jeans and a T-shirt, sprints down the aisle to proudly introduce "the most blood-, guts-, and obscenity-laden film in the history of the Boston Film Festival."

His movie, "Cabin Fever," is a 94-minute tribute to old-school horror flicks. There's no Jason or Freddy, but there are buckets of blood, bared breasts, and juvenile jokes. The film follows five kids who, upon college graduation, rent a cabin in the woods of the Deep South. There they are exposed to nasty, flesh-eating bacteria and must decide whether to help one another or protect themselves. It took Roth seven years to get "Cabin Fever" made, during which time he was rejected by virtually every studio. That all changed after a screening at the Toronto Film Festival last September. His independently produced movie drew raves from hard-core horror fans and New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell. Roth sold "Cabin Fever" to Lions Gate Films for $3.5 million, $2 million more than it cost to make. The film hits theaters tomorrow.

Roth takes his seat as the lights go down. Whenever "Cabin Fever" hurtles over the top -- a bloody kill, a raunchy sex scene, a joke involving masturbation and a dog -- he looks over at his parents and Aunt Gladys. They're laughing with the crowd.

The Eli Roth show doesn't end with the credits. In a post-film, standing-room-only question-and-answer session with the audience, Roth does dead-on impressions of a Massachusetts townie, a fey Southern gentleman, and director David Lynch. He raves about his heroes (Stanley Kubrick and Peter Jackson) and slams "Gigli" director Martin Brest, who once fired Roth from his job as an extra. He's freewheelingly funny and profane, and angry only when the subject turns to those who slam horror movies. He calls one local writer a crass four-letter word. He notes how in other countries there are horror movie festivals. In the States, though, making a slasher flick is "one step away from pornography."

And then Roth reverts to his favorite marketing argument. "Horror movies are the best date movies," he says. "There's no wondering `when do I put my arm around her?' If you can't hook up after `Cabin Fever,' you're pathetic."

The night before his appearance, Roth heads to Newton, where he grew up, for Shabbat dinner with his parents. His father, Sheldon, does a special blessing in honor of the occasion -- his son's triumphant return from Los Angeles. Eli says the prayer over the challah. But he draws the line when his mother, Cora, offers a yarmulke to be placed on his spiky, Ben Stiller-like 'do.

Sheldon praises the interviews his son has done, particularly a 30-minute spot with Mitchell on KCRW, LA's celebrated public radio station. Cora prepares plates of brisket. Eli nags his mother to sit down, even raising his voice in mock frustration. When she finally does, he treats his parents to the same stories that keep auditoriums mesmerized, referencing Scott Baio's 1982 film "Zapped" and a delicious tale about his girlfriend, Jessica Chandler, who has been hired by Britney Spears to shoot a documentary.

He could have stayed downtown, like the other movie types. But Roth prefers the brick Tudor-style home in Waban. This is where he grew up, the second of three boys. He learned to draw here, collected stacks of Fangoria magazine, and shot his first frames. For "Splatter on the Linoleum," the then 13-year-old Roth enlisted his younger brother, Gabriel, and bottles of ketchup.

Roth has mixed emotions about Newton. Now 31, he's still close to many friends from town, casting some as extras in "Cabin Fever." But he remains critical of what he considers the focus on "serious" careers in the community. He remembers the laughs at Temple Emanuel when Rabbi Chiel announced that the bar mitzvah boy wanted to make movies. He remembers the dismay when he told a guidance counselor at Newton South High School the same plan.

"I got a great education from Newton, but all the encouragement about being an artist came from my parents," Roth says.

Cora and Sheldon were New Yorkers who met at Brooklyn College. He became a psychoanalyst. She brought up Adam, Eli, and Gabriel before launching a career as a professional artist.

There were questions about Eli from the start. In the first grade, a teacher told Cora that her son was silly and seemed intent on making people laugh. In the third grade, a teacher said Eli depended too much on potty humor. Cora shrugged. His grades were good, and he was always a pleasure to deal with. The Roths made sure their sons learned animation and how to use a Super-8 camera. They took them to the movies regularly, even when a Buster Keaton festival fell on some school nights.

Though they were partial to the art house, the Roths encouraged Eli's interest in horror films. In a journal from second grade, the boy filled the pages with drawings and stories related to movies, particularly a series of sketches, in Magic Marker, from "The Exorcist." Some parents might have wondered why their child was drawing priests and green vomit. The Roths offered only praise.

"ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC!!!" they wrote on a page of the journal. "GREAT WRITING, FERVOR AND STYLE. WE ARE PROUD OF YOU AND CAN'T WAIT TO READ THE END OF THE STORY."

Did the Roths ever wonder why their seemingly happy young son seemed consumed by stomach-turning blood splatter?

"As Jung would say, it's his shadow self," his father says. "These are the inner desires, unexpressed in his daily life. These are all the things that he wishes he could do but never has."

Robert Goggin, who teaches film at Newton South, found himself defending Roth to colleagues after "Leatherface vs. Kitty Carry-All," which Roth made in 1986 when he was in ninth grade. It featured the leading character from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and Cindy's doll from "The Brady Bunch."

"For me, there was always this very striking contrast between an exceptionally personable young man and very disturbing content," says Goggin. "Eli, at all times, is aware of his audience, and he wants to do something to his audience. He wants to provoke."

It wasn't easy getting "Cabin Fever" made. Roth wrote the script in the mid-'90s, while at New York University. A classmate, Randy Pearlstein, helped him with a rewrite. They shopped it around and found no takers.

Roth remained committed to the idea of the film but knew he had to learn the business. So as he worked toward his degree, Roth took a job as an office manager for Fred Zollo, producer of "Mississippi Burning" and "Quiz Show." Through Zollo, Roth met Lynch, who later hired him to help shoot short films for Lynch's website. He worked as an extra and as an alarm clock for Howard Stern, who needed Roth to wake him up every morning during the filming of 1997's "Private Parts."

On the sets, Roth learned the technical side of the business, the lingo, the way a production is run. He also built up a Rolodex. These connections would be important when, in 1999, he moved to Los Angeles. The first person to return his calls there was Camryn Manheim, star of "The Practice." She met Roth in 1993 in New York at a premiere, pulled in by the personality of the fast-talking, milk-drinking Jewish kid at the buffet table. "All you have to do is spend two minutes with Eli and know that he's got a light that just shines on everybody," says Manheim.

That first spring in Los Angeles, Manheim invited Roth to her mother's house, for what she now refers to as the "power Seder." At the table, Roth met Kevin Hench, with whom he would write "The Extra," a script since optioned by former 20th Century Fox head Bill Mechanic. Roth also met Manheim's cousin, Howie Nuchow, a connection that led to the development of two animated projects: "Chowdaheads," about a group of wrestling Massachusetts kids, and "The Rotten Fruit," featuring a Monkees-esque musical group made up of angry, violent, profane fruit. "Chowdaheads" was produced for WCW wrestling in 1999, but it never ran. About seven episodes of "The Rotten Fruit" were shown on www.z.com in 2000 before the entertainment-oriented site went under. Roth hopes to put the series out on DVD.

Evan Astrowsky, an NYU classmate, helped produce those projects. And Astrowsky revived "Cabin Fever," bringing it to a pair of producers he had worked with before, Lauren Moews and the North Carolina-based Sam Froelich. After a scramble for more investors, filming took place over 22 days in the fall of 2001 in North Carolina, with another two days in Los Angeles the next spring. Roth and the producers were raising money up until the debut in Toronto, eventually hitting up his parents for $110,000. But the response in Toronto and sale to Lions Gate meant his investors made money before a ticket was sold. Roth could then focus on his mission: making horror movies legit.

He longs for horror's golden age, the 1970s, when Steven Spielberg filmed "Jaws," Kubrick made "The Shining," and William Friedkin, fresh off "The French Connection," directed "The Exorcist."

"The best movies now are called thrillers," says Roth. "Because if you use the word `horror,' people's associations are straight-to-video crap. It ghettoizes the genre and leaves us with movies like "Wrong Turn" and "Darkness Falls." The only way to change it is to take a stand. The directors need to say, `I'm making a smart, scary movie and that's OK.' " To do that, he's formed a production company with director Boaz Yakin ("Remember the Titans"), director Scott Spiegel ("Intruder"), and writer David J. Schow ("The Crow") to make low-budget horror films.

Still, Roth isn't interested only in horror. There's "The Extra." And Universal Studios bought Roth's pitch for "Scavenger Hunt," a teen comedy based on the scandalous, and true, senior tradition at Newton South. With so many possibilities -- but no film guaranteed to be made -- Roth knows his next choice will be important. He wants to be another Jackson or Sam Raimi. He doesn't want to go the way of Jim Gillespie, who followed up "I Know What You Did Last Summer" with the expensive bomb "D-Tox." Now Gillespie, once so hot, is in "director's jail," says Roth.

In the basement of the house in Newton, Roth mulls over his situation. The space is unchanged, the linoleum from his teenage ketchup flick still there, as well as the posters of Red Sox star Jim Rice and bikini babe Christie Brinkley.

"Everybody's always been like, `What's your lifelong dream?' " he says, sitting back in a black leather chair. "Take Christie Brinkley and Heather Thomas to the high school prom. Make my Olsen twins movie. But getting on the cover of Fangoria magazine was always more important to me than winning an Academy Award. So there's not much left on the list."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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