Directed by Eli Roth. Starring Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, Joey Kern, Cerina Vincent, James DeBello. (2003, R, 94 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 12, 2003
The feel-bad comedy of the year! Cabin Fever first screened as part of South by Southwest 2003, and although I missed the show, the overwhelming buzz the next day from those who did manage to make it out to the Alamo Drafthouse was loud and palpable. At that point, no one was sure if this debut horror yarn from first-timer Roth would pick up a distribution deal or, more likely, head down the far-less-fruitful straight-to-video path. Lions Gate, wisely, came to the rescue, and the result is an atypical fall release that may well end up the second coming of The Blair Witch Project. Like that indie watershed, Cabin Fever takes the hoary teens-in-the-woods cliché (or "Spam in a cabin," as Stephen King gleefully referred to Sam Raimi’s first outing, The Evil Dead) and knocks it upside the head with a two-by-four. While Cabin Fever isn’t quite as over-the-top as Raimi’s initial shocker, it does have the ring of horror movie authenticity to it: Roth is a fan, and he knows the tropes of the slice-and-dice genre he’s so ably gutting. There’s a running element of sick, sick humor to Cabin Fever, from the bad-pun title to the characters, all of whom are so single-mindedly out for survival in the face of increasingly disastrous odds that you’d be hard-pressed to decide who’s the protagonist and who deserves to suffer the ultimately gooey consequences. Consequences of what? I hear you say. Why, a flesh-eating virus that renders its victims mewling, melting maniacs, alternately going all fetal and drippy and running amok. Five teens, led by the relatively ethical Strong, head out to the proverbial love shack and quickly end up duking it out among themselves as, one by one, they fall prey to the mysterious illness. There’s a broad swath of Deliverance-style hootenanny horror to Roth’s picture, too, but the relative fun comes from seeing the teens (among them Cheryl Ladd’s daughter Jordan) slowly turn on one another as the stakes grow higher. Roth begs, borrows, and steals from the best, including a fair amount of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies) and, of course, Sam Raimi’s first two Evil Dead films, but there are also echoes of other exercises in paranoia, including William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours, of all things. Cabin Fever also benefits from a serious case of David Lynchisms – the town deputy appears to have wandered in from Twin Peaks, and there are enough inexplicable shenanigans to make poor old Agent Cooper gag on his beloved cherry pie. Ultimately, Cabin Fever isn’t going to win any awards for originality – it’s too busy twisting the conventions of the genre back in on themselves for that – but it does provide a jarring battery of scares (often depressing ones at that) that make it severed-head-and-shoulders above the spate of recent shockers.