Viking Night: Cabin Fever
By Bruce Hall
May 14, 2013
Eli Roth is a scrappy, self-made man whose films are always oozing with confidence and swagger. He strikes me as the kind of guy who believes very strongly in what he does and even if he’s wrong - especially when he’s wrong - he’s not afraid to dig in and double down just on principle. It’s been said that all successful directors need a little bit of this, but I would suggest that artists take heed. It takes a lot of guts for a person to decide that they have something inside them that's important enough to share with the world, and at some point even your best friends will try to tell you that you’re wasting your time.
Let's be honest: most people ARE wasting their time. But they usually get weeded out by natural selection, or on the early season episodes of American Idol. For others - the ones who actually have a chance to succeed - good sound advice like that just adds fuel to the fire. They answer failure with even more tenacity, because sometimes the difference between fearlessness and desperation is that there isn't one. So yes, they dig in and double down. They hone their skills, bide their time and refine their craft. And they take the simultaneous sense of vindication and fear that comes with your first directing gig, and they make a movie like Cabin Fever.
The festivities begin with a backwoods drifter who catches a nasty flesh eating bug from a dead dog. Cut to a group of college kids headed to the woods for a party weekend in a rented cabin. There's Paul (Rider Strong), the “brains" of the group. Karen (Jordan Ladd) has known Paul since their youth, and is the object of his not-so-secret crush. Marcy (Cerina Vincent) is the Slutty One. Jeff (Joey Kern) is the Asshole, and Marcy's boyfriend, although only God knows why. Last up is Burt (James DeBello), the emotionally unstable prankster nobody would ever take on a trip to the woods except in a movie. After stopping for supplies, they set up in the cabin and start the party.
It's all fun and games, until the drifter shows up, spitting blood and shedding skin. The girls want to help, while the guys want to drive him off. It gets settled when the hermit disables their truck (hard to be stranded in the woods if your car is still running), forcing the kids to hustle him off, during which they accidentally savagely beat him and set him on fire. The poor flaming wretch flees, falls face first into a nearby river and dies.
All this commotion attracts the local law, who turn out to be almost as incompetent as they are ignorant. Meanwhile, although their truck is jacked up, the kids still have plenty of beer, and no shortage of sweet, refreshing water to drink, straight from the nearby river. You know, the one the flaming hobo with the flesh eating death-virus is currently decomposing in.
Of course you can see where this is going, but that's not the point. Yes, the disease attacks the kids. Yes, the locals get involved and yes, there are many wicked fatalities. If you’re the “boobs-n-blood” type, you'll feel right at home inside Eli Roth's head, and that seems to be the point. Otherwise, this is kind of a mixed bag. The small town's inhabitants are an interesting (and quite possibly inbred) bunch, but the most interesting thing going on is how the kids' relationships deteriorate throughout the film. The threat of an oozing, sloppy death will get you a variety of reactions out of any group of five people, but in this case it's pretty priceless.
The otherwise useless personality types I mentioned earlier are worth their weight in gold once the blood starts flowing. But the humor is negated somewhat by an irritating aimlessness that belies the film's swaggering self assurance. Its most memorable moment involves a redneck kid and an allusion to a popular breakfast treat. The scene is lovingly presented in super slow motion and from several different angles - and while it marks a significant turning point in the film, by then it feels like a cheap money shot, designed to emphasize what a great job the movie thinks it's doing. Truly, there's an aggressive, frat boy insistence to Cabin Fever that the ladies will recognize from every bad date in history.
Sometimes it works, and is clever in ways and places you wouldn’t expect from a splatter fest like this. The rest of the time it's bewildering. At times, Cabin Fever is a witty homage to better films made by more original people. And on occasion, it's actually kind of funny in its own right. But when it's time for new ideas, we're given little to remember other than “avoid hillbillies,” “stay out of the woods" and “boil your water before you drink it.” But if you're like me, you already adhere religiously at least one of these ideas every day. Other than a sense of smug self awareness and 50% more intestines, this film can't give you anything you haven't already gotten somewhere else.
If that's okay with you, then that's okay with me, because fundamentally, this is just another backwoods gore fest that happens to offer a few laughs - just not enough to keep it consistently interesting. Still, Roth acquits himself well considering the genre and the fact that it was his first film. It's good for group viewing or for background noise at a party. So if you'd like to see an occasionally amusing, super bloody, never-really-scary horror flick that you'll never need to think about again as long as you live, then aren't you glad you're reading this? But be warned; Cabin Fever imitates better than it innovates, so those looking for an actual scare might be better served elsewhere.