"I don't want to get sick! I don't want any of us getting sick!"
This little movie, with its miniscule budget (a shade over $1 million) and its heavy doses of Karo syrup, certainly sent shock waves through the horror fan community. Was Eli Roth's creation the film that would steer the genre into a new direction? Would a "hard R" movie like this, rife with gore and breasts, lead to a re-evaluation of Hollywood horror flicks? With its mix of terror and comedy, does the movie effectively mingle genres or create a soufflé of mismanaged audience pathos? Is it homage or "wannabe homage" that descends into the realm of the unoriginal?
Basically, does Cabin Fever measure up to the hype?
Facts of the Case
Five college friends—Paul, Karen, Bert, Marcy, and Jeff—jump into their truck and head up to a cabin nestled in the woods of Deliverance country (populated by yokels with jaws slacked aplenty) for a weekend or so of relentless debauchery.
All the stereotypes are accounted for here. Paul (Rider Strong), the mild-mannered decent schmo with the unwavering crush on his lifelong, blonde bombshell of a friend; Karen (Jordan Ladd), said bombshell, the soft-spoken girl sending out the mixed messages to her lifelong mild-mannered, decent schmo of a friend; Bert (James DeBello), the obligatory obnoxious, foul-mouthed drunk (begging the question, why are these fifth wheel idiots always invited to retreats like this?); Marcy (Cerina Vincent), the group's token nudity-prone, ultra-nympho; and Jeff (Joey Kern), the object of Marcy's boinking and the gang's Aryan nation rep.
Unbeknownst to this merry quintet, in those same woods, a hermit finds his dog, dead and decimated, its organs liquefied, apparently the recipient of a brutal flesh-eating contagion. Unfortunately, the guy takes a shot of infected gore to the face and…
Back at the cabin the party is in full swing; sex has been had, squirrels have been fired upon, alcohol has been consumed, and heart-to-heart confessions of love have been unloaded. But the kids are about to have their inebriated existences set into a topspin. The infected hermit, dripping and vomiting liters of blood begs for help, and the kids, scared of the man's contagious nature, fend him off, beating on him, lighting him on fire, and watching him run, screaming into the woods—right into the cabin's water supply.
All questions of "why in the world these morons would never boil lake water before drinking it" aside, the virus finds its vehicle, and faster than you can say "We've got a bleeder here!" orifices begin to spew, skin peels, and friendships are torn asunder.
Panicked and stupid, the five friends begin battling the disease through quarantine then jump straight to "every man/woman for him/herself." Things get really out of control when not just the disease becomes the antagonist. Throw in some belligerent, gun-toting hillbillies, a whacked-out dog, and a Shoalin-inspired mullet-child that screams "Pancakes!" and Cabin Fever all of a sudden leaps from a serious, dread-inducing virus flick into a cacophony of humor, backwoods eccentricities, and buckets of blood.
So here it is. Some proclaim Cabin Fever as the flick to right so many wrongs of piss-poor horror entries, deeming Eli Roth a messianic figure that would deliver fans from the wasteland of movies with gore and bosoms unseen. Others oppose the hype, classifying it as, at best, nothing really genre-redefining and, at worst, a big, bloody mess. I say I would land in between these two broad generalizations.
Cabin Fever effectively disturbed me in places, while its effects succeeded in making my flesh crawl here and there. This is certainly no throwaway piece of horror, and any fan should check it out.
What affected me most was the nature of the killer here. A whacked-out psychopath brandishing a garden implement, a horde of demons, or a sadistic leprechaun—those are killers that automatically erect a sort of logical divide between the viewer and the victim. "Well, there's no way I have to worry about being savaged by a giant pink blob," is what one may subconsciously think, bringing the terror-level down a notch or two. But a flesh-eating virus—yeah, that, to me, is authentically sinister, and as a result conjures authentic dread.
Since news of Lions Gate picking up the rights to the movie first surfaced, I have been privy to a multitude of impressions and input, much generated by the tireless hype machine. I saw Peter Jackson's copious praise, and certainly didn't dismiss it; he is Derek of course. With these accolades and my genuine intrigue at the concept, I felt what lay in store was a memorable experience.
However, what stops Cabin Fever from becoming truly revolutionary are three things:
1) The absolutely inane things the characters do in the face of their plight. You don't need to tell me that characters in horror movies always do stupid things or else they won't get smoked in unique ways. Yet with Cabin Fever, and the threat as "realistic" as it is, there are times throughout the flick where I was baffled by some of their brainless decisions. Hermit, go home! Stupid, go back to that house no matter what the guy with gun says! Drive away fast and keep going until you get help!
2) The mishmash of tones. Part of the reason why the previous observation bothered me so much was Roth's decision to meld humor and horror. The humor here isn't of the tension-relieving ilk, but of the absurd. This would work if the film operated as an over-the-top tongue-and-cheek splatterfest (read: Dead/Alive, Bad Taste, Evil Dead 2), but Cabin Fever maintains a tone of seriousness and dread from the get-go, minus a few macabre spots (the campfire tale.) And the end, with an absolute cringe-inducer of a payoff gag, is just so wildly out of place. If the film was made as straight horror minus some of the slapstick (what's with the harmonica?!) then it would have scared the pants off of me. Or even as a gore-drenched romp—great. But its schizophrenic nature just left me in a state of…wha?
3) Bert. I hate that guy.
I wouldn't mention these if the movie had been a waste. It's not. It's well done, the make-up and effects are excellent (the lack of CGI was welcome), and the atmosphere—when at its darkest—is thoroughly effective. The movie was obviously crafted by a fan, and I appreciate what Roth was doing here. The guy has moves, and I anticipate his next foray. As it stands, though, his rookie endeavor comes just shy of being inducted into the annals of horror legend.
Lions Gate has put together a nice little disc here. The transfer is crisp, but not sacrificing the grainy ambiance Roth was going for. Some sequences, such as the cave scene, are way too dark, but that has nothing to do with the transfer. The sound works well, keeping the throbbing score to the background, and really punching up the inevitable jump scenes.
The special features are an eclectic batch. First off, you get loads of commentaries…and no one is afraid to talk. Roth is omnipresent, and Rider Strong is apparently so garrulous he gets his very own track.
A very good featurette is included, sporting possibly the most disturbing of images on the whole disc: a photo of a real virus victim. Ugh, no thanks. The section on casting the killer dog was hilarious. Basically, it is obvious from this documentary that all associated with the film are very affectionate about it.
Roth includes three episodes of his "Rotten Fruit" animated shorts, some seriously $#%*-ed up—but funny—stuff. And talk about crazy, you also get a home video montage of Matthew Helms (AKA Dennis, the pancakes boy) and his marital arts repertoire. ?!?!?!?!
A couple of throwaway features are the "Chick Vision," where hands pop up onscreen during scarier moments, and the Family version (you can check that out yourself).
All in all, a nice package, with a great presentation.
Tired of the fetid piles of iguana poop the studios have been passing off as horror these days? It's obvious Eli Roth is. His sojourn into filmmaking is a blast of the gory past, held up by some creative missteps, but destined nonetheless for a slot of prominence among cult classics. Catch it, definitely.
The bench offers its sincere gratitude to Lions Gate for putting out a quality disc of a spiffy little genre entry. Roth gets kudos going for something different and not shying away from all the R-rating was designed to boast. All are released to spread…well, spread anything but that disgusting disease. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary tracks (actors, director, filmmakers)
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