Eli Roth was hailed by none other than genre demigod Quentin Tarantino as “the future of horror” following his debut feature “Cabin Fever,” a grotesquely inventive chiller about a flesh-eating virus that has its way with a group of youngsters out camping in the woods. But since then, Roth hasn’t really lived up to the promise. He made two terrific “Hostel” movies (produced by Mr. Tarantino) but then drifted off the map, appearing as an actor in further QT adventures (“Death Proof,” “Inglourious Basterds”) and producing some forgettable schlock (“The Last Exorcism,” “Man with the Iron Fists”). With “Aftershock,” he makes a returning bid for the title of “the future of horror,” producing, co-writing and starring in a movie that uneasily mixes real-life tragedy with B-movie theatrics, using the 2010 Chilean earthquake as the backdrop for a movie that’s equal parts “Piranha 3D” and “The Impossible.”
Like most testosterone-drenched horror movies of this ilk, the first 30 minutes or so is more or less a bawdy sex comedy, with three dudes (led by Roth, who is simply identified as “Gringo”) bumbling around Chilean nightclubs awkwardly looking for girls. These early scenes do have an easygoing vibe that replicates the hangdog camaraderie of the friends, and there’s a great moment where they’re at a party and are watching girls and mimicking the “swipe” move on their iPhones for the girls they find to be less than adequately attractive (“Next,” they say, as they swipe in the air). Even though these sequences are clearly meant to simply eat up screen time before the mayhem starts, they never feel exactly like filler and Roth, for his part, seems to have matured somewhat as an actor, mercifully refusing to fall back on the kind of nervous tics that awkwardly defined his turns in both Tarantino movies (and free from a horrible Boston accent).
Eventually the goon squad hooks up with a group of girls with incredibly low self-esteem and they continue their debauchery-fueled tour of Chile, this time with a little more gender equality. There are internal frictions within the group, though, particularly between Pollo (Nicholas Martinez), a rich kid son of a politician, and Roth’s Gringo; there’s also some tension between two of the girls (who are also half-sisters) – the more straight-laced Monica (Andrea Osvart) and wild child Kylie (Lorenza Izzo). Of course, all of the infighting comes to a head right as a seismic calamity (rating an 8.8 on the Richter magnitude scale) hits Chile. From then on out it’s utter chaos.
For the hour or so left of the film’s brisk running time, co-writer/director Nicolas Lopez delivers a series of reasonably gripping suspense set pieces that place our characters in harm’s way as they try to avoid both the literal and psychological collapse of the city. When the shockwaves first hit, in a crowded nightclub, it’s the kind of gleefully brutalized carnage that was seen in “Piranha 3D” (where, unsurprisingly, Roth made a cameo), with all sorts of stuff falling and crushing people; at one point a wall collapses and Lopez lingers on rubble and bloody body parts. Thankfully, as the movie goes along, he tempers his bloodlust, instead engaging in sequences that up the suspense and terror while not exclusively luxuriating in the bloodshed.
Instead of some supernatural force that follows the tragedy, Lopez, Roth, and their third writer Guillermo Amoedo, focus on a group of violent prisoners (clearly inspired less by actual prisoners than by ’80s gang movies like “The Warriors”) whose prison collapsed around them. The human element, of course, being far more dangerous than anything that Mother Nature could unleash. This makes for an interesting dynamic, with murder lurking around every corner and taking a number of shapes. This kind of thing undoubtedly took place following an earthquake of the magnitude that befell Chile in 2010, but Lopez is clearly exaggerating wildly, and for the most part it works.
If there’s one huge problem with “Aftershock,” though, it’s the complete and utter lack of style or visual sophistication. While there are certainly a number of scenes that are intensely scary, rarely is it ever staged with anything more than a workmanlike approach. In short: it’s bland. There’s a sequence later in the movie where the remaining characters (who are whittled down ruthlessly, it should be noted) are descending into a kind of subterranean basement. This would have been the perfect opportunity for a “Casualties of War”-esque shot where we dip below the surface and see what’s going on beneath ground, which would add some scale and visual variety. But nope. Things are just ploddingly documented with all the flair of a SyFy Channel original movie, which isn’t too far off considering “Aftershock,” like most of those SyFy movies, borrows liberally from both Irwin Allen and Roger Corman. Even a nifty series of cards indicating what time it is (“Wednesday, 4:03 AM”) is abandoned halfway through the movie, which is odd considering that it would be crucial knowing when things are happening following the quake. Society becomes a nebulous blur when disaster strikes, it would be nice to have had some kind of temporal mooring.
Overall, though, “Aftershock” works. Supposedly “Aftershock” was so hardcore that it originally received an NC-17 rating, having to be heavily edited to receive an R-rating (thankfully a bizarre Selena Gomez cameo survived the cuts), although it’s hard to imagine what else they could have jammed in there. For some, the movie’s ballsy mixture of real life events and genre tropes will be a huge turnoff but the movie never makes light of the tragedy, or plays it for laughs. It’s just utilized as an extremely vivid backdrop for a slightly kitschy tale of survival. Roth clearly had a wonderful time making the movie and collaborated with Lopez and some of the cast and crew for his next directorial effort, a jungle-set cannibal thing called “The Green Inferno.” Maybe with that movie Roth will officially retake his title as “the future of horror.” With “Aftershock,” he’s made inroads, but he’s not quite there yet. [B-]