Following a year of hype after it sent last year's Toronto Film Festival by storm, first-time director Eli Roth's low-budget "Cabin Fever" has been blessed with a marketing campaign and 2000+ screen count that matches, if not surpasses, most studio horror films. While hype is a dangerous thing (look no further than the backlash for 1999's "The Blair Witch Project
" for proof) and "Cabin Fever" ultimately does not match it, the film is as faithful as any 21st-century effort has come to matching the look and feel of a 1970's "backwoods" splatter flick. The superior "House of 1000 Corpses
" came close, and "Wrong Turn
" trailed right behind in inspiration, but "Cabin Fever" gets it just right. In fact, a close knowledge of that era's horror genre (think "Last House on the Left," "The Hills Have Eyes," and "The Evil Dead") is almost a necessity in fully appreciating what "Cabin Fever" has to offer, and Roth makes no bones about it from the unsettling opening credits to the outrageous, borderline-inappropriate final scenes.
The catch is that, instead of a masked psychopath or demonic forces or inbred rednecks as the villain, the slasher here is a flesh-eating virus to which, once infected, there is no escape. To celebrate the end of their college careers, five happy-go-lucky friendsplatonic pals Paul (Rider Strong) and Karen (Jordan Ladd), horny couple Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent), and solo doofus Bert (James DeBello)travel to a middle-of-nowhere cabin in the woods for a week of partying. Their fun is cut short when they come into contact with a hermit with a very serious, highly contagious virus that has him coughing up blood and his skin falling off. Once dispatching of him, the five buddies turn against each other as paranoia sets in and they start exhibiting some gruesome symptoms of their own.
"Cabin Fever" is a stomach-churning, blood-drenched romp that deserves points simply for being worthy of these adjectives in today's times. Too often, horror films are forced to play it safe, either falling victim to the MPAA's asinine rampage or getting watered down to a PG-13 by their studio. With enough sex and karo syrup to make Wes Craven blush and Sam Raimi stand up and take notice, "Cabin Fever" is a gory (this goes without saying) and grim experience. It's definitely not the type of horror movie your grandma used to know.
Had "Cabin Fever" remained a straight scare picture, it might have been a masterpiece, as unrelenting and genuinely disturbing as any in a decade. In his quest to remain truthful to the '70s, however, writer-director Eli Roth has also seen fit to include the kind of off-the-wall black humor prevalent of the time period. It works for the majority of the running time (such as a party-animal cop the kids run into, joyously played by Giuseppe Andrews), because off-weighing the comedy is a story that becomes exceedingly more nerve-racking and horrific by the minute. As we meet and initially get to know the five protagonists, we are charmed by their camaraderie, which is laid-back and accurate to the way real friends act around each other. And then, as they become infected by the virus one by one and suddenly see their hopes and dreams (and lives) cut short, the result is not only terrifying, but also sort of poignant.
The leads, including Rider Strong (TV's "Boy Meets World") and Cerina Vincent (2001's "Not Another Teen Movie
"), ably fulfill the requirements of their roles, looking scared on command and digging into the dark reality of the situation. Deserving special note is James DeBello (2002's "Swimfan
"), stealing every scene as the simultaneously lovable and frustrating jokester Bert. We all inevitably know someone like Bert, and DeBello takes the role to the limit.
Astute to the conventions of the genre, Eli Roth (in an admittedly quite impressive directorial debut) successfully creates a rising tension and palpably alarming atmosphere that becomes nearly suffocating in the final half-hour. Regrettably, because the villain is not a human or supernatural force and there is no way to stop the virus, Roth paints himself into a corner that he seems unsure how to get out of. The final ten minutes are at a loss for where to go, and the horror that had been so effective is replaced in favor of oddball, jokey plot developments and an irony-filled final scene that is just a little too cute by a half. Instead of walking out of the theater with chills running down our spine at the end, Roth sends us out laughing and, undoubtedly for some, unsure of what to make of it all.
Which brings me back to my original point. Casual moviegoers who are fans of "Scream
" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer
" but have no idea who lived on "The Last House on the Left" will be bewildered by the final segment of "Cabin Fever." However, those who are well-versed on '70s gore flicks will know exactly what Eli Roth has done, and what he has achieved, giggling in acknowledgment the whole way home and for an entirely different set of reasons than what the teenybopper down the row is. With "Cabin Fever," I smell a cult following in the making.