I must have a blind spot when it comes to Eli Roth. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I always find myself expecting his next project not to suck. Maybe it’s his natural charisma, or his skill as a publicist, or his commitment to the horror genre; whatever the reason, it’s a delusion of which I need to cure myself. As an actor Roth is moderately successful. While not the most accomplished of performers, he’s always watchable, and his few extended onscreen ventures have been rousing successes (I’m mostly thinking of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but he’s pretty good in AFTERSHOCK, too). Full of energy and ideas, he’s the charming face of horror off-screen, too. It’s not the man himself I object to, therefore, but his limited and bafflingly overrated abilities as a filmmaker. His first film, 2002’s CABIN FEVER, was a derivative backwoods slasher of limited appeal, and the two HOSTELs that followed were far worse, helping to precipitate the rise in popularity of the vulgar and unpleasant torture porn subgenre. Since then he’s only been behind the camera once, to helm the opening episode of Netfix’s appalling HEMLOCK GROVE (if you haven’t seen it, don’t bother; it’s ponderous, illogical and pointless), but has helped to script RZA’s shambolic semi-spoof THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, and the feature we’re considering today, Chilean director Nicolás López’s AFTERSHOCK. While the premise is intriguing, and there are a wealth of unpleasant and unexpected twists, the film is far too trite to be taken seriously.
An American tourist, ‘Gringo’ (Roth), is exploring Chile with his two friends. The trio end up in an underground nightclub in the city of Valparaiso when a devastating earthquakes hits. They survive the carnage, although one of their group loses a hand, and they set out through the ruined city to get him to a hospital...
Horror fans have learned to expect a certain amount of preamble before the main event. It comes with the territory. In the case of AFTERSHOCK, this trend towards blatant time-wasting is particularly egregious, and follows a similar (although less overtly xenophobic) pattern to HOSTEL. Through the eyes of an American abroad we explore an exotic foreign country, in the company of several beautiful women. It’s no surprise that disaster strikes (the title and the trailer rather give it away), this time of the natural, rather than manmade variety (although there’s plenty of uniquely human depravity on display), but what does come as a surprise is that it takes until the halfway point for the titular quake to strike. The first forty five minutes of the film are spent hanging out with the three male leads while they sightsee, flirt and party. There’s a minuscule amount of foreshadowing going on, but in the main it’s an appallingly apparent exercise in narrative water-treading, a way to fritter away half of the film’s runtime. On the plus side, the characters are likeable, and engender at least a sliver of empathy, but their exploits are so resoundingly insubstantial and unremarkable that they soon become tedious, then downright boring. If I hadn’t seen the trailer and didn’t know what was coming, I would have switched it off long before disaster finally struck.
When it arrives, the earthquake is reasonably well choreographed, and the mayhem, although unlikely in places, is commendably gruesome. At this point López abandons what slender story he’d managed to weave and allows the action to spin off in random directions, dictated by the chaos surrounding the characters. He and his co-writers are content to allow the calamity to take charge, aided and abetted by human cowardice and fear, and a cadre of sadistic escaped prisoners. López’s only remit, it seems, is to kill his characters in the nastiest possible ways. It’s both fun and surprising to see the leads endure such callous treatment, but it’s also a distinctly hollow experience. The characters aren’t sufficiently developed for their deaths to feel like they mean anything, and López is too obvious and ham-fisted a director to wring any pathos from their suffering. It isn’t nearly as vile and cynical as torture porn, but neither is it the engaging drama it seems to think it is.
If you take your brain off the hook (a prerequisite for any Eli Roth film, with the notable exception of the aforementioned INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), the second half of AFTERSHOCK is far more enjoyable than the first. If the first half is a transparent exercise in time-wasting, the second is a breakneck descent into wholesale slaughter. It isn’t even close to convincing – López’s cartoonish direction won’t allow it – and, surprise deaths notwithstanding, the beats are woefully predictable (including the ending), but at least it manages to generate a measure of fun. Roth’s geeky persona is a nice change of pace, and it’s gratifying to encounter a horror film where the main characters aren’t all irredeemable scumbags. The effects are good, and López paints a vivid picture of a city in ruins. The boundless misanthropy starts to grate towards the end (isn’t there anyone in the city with even a shred of human kindness?), but it’s worth it to enjoy the film’s recklessly cavalier attitude towards the welfare of its characters. Silly and superficial, AFTERSHOCK’s many shortcomings are at least partly surmounted by its amiable cast and the manic directorial energy of the infinitely superior second half; sadly, however, we have to endure the pointless tedium of the first half to get there.
Still, I’m sure Eli Roth’s forthcoming THE GREEN INFERNO will be much better, right?