Cabin Fever

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/11/07 19:16:41

"The cure for this fever? Sadly, it's not more cowbell."
3 stars (Just Average)

I’m guessing the kids in “Cabin Fever” have never seen a horror movie before. If they had, they’d have known that their vacation spot of choice - an isolated cabin in the woods - ranks right up there with abandoned summer camps, out of the way motels, and houses where serial killers used to live on the list of Places Where People Tend To Get Killed. The difference here is that it’s a virus, not a masked psycho, doing the killing, but hey, to a dead kid, does it matter?

It turns out that director/co-writer Eli Roth has seen plenty of horror movies in his day, and with his feature debut, he tosses us a pile of great horror clichés, understanding that they’re clichés and how to twist them to keep them relatively fresh. The movie combines four great horror themes: unstoppable disease, paranoia, isolation, and rednecks. Think of “Cabin Fever” as “Evil Dead” meets “Outbreak” meets “Deliverance,” with a heavy dose of black comedy and an eagerness for gross out visuals. The combo doesn’t always work, but when it does, it makes for some great chills.

The story kicks off with five college kids heading out to a rented cabin for a week’s worth of partying. True to the horror character template, we get two couples, one oversexed, one undersexed, plus a goofy tagalong drunk pal. The oversexed duo is Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent); the undersexed are Paul (Rider Strong) and Karen (Jordan Ladd), who are just good friends, although Paul’s trying to make his move. The goofy tagalong is Bert (James DeBello), who, in pure horror tradition, exists merely to make wisecracks, get drunk, and generally be a fifth wheel.

If this were a slasher movie, Bert would be the one to wander off alone, lamenting his lack of a girlfriend, only to get sliced by the killer. Here, however, he merely runs across a crazed hermit (Arie Verveen), who’s covered in lesions and ranting like a maniac. The hermit returns again later, this time confronting the entire group, managing to projectile vomit blood all over their truck before getting set on fire and fleeing into the woods. (It makes more sense than it sounds.)

It’s not long before the kids themselves start getting sick, but Roth and co-writer Randy Pearlstein give us a nice twist, one that ups the suspense. It’s not contact with the sick hermit that infects the kids, although that’s what they think it is. No, it’s the drinking water, which has been contaminated. In a great scene, the filmmakers toy with the audience, letting us squirm for a while as we wait anxiously to see if anyone’ll actually drink that water that they believe to be safe.

Yes, Roth and company overplay some of these moments (do we really need the too-obvious music “sting” to let us know something bad’s just happened?), but they still work. More effective are the freakish bits of gore placed throughout the film, like the leg shaving scene that I wound up watching with my hand over my eyes, which is something I rarely do.

Roth and Pearlstein also make the most of their characters’ growing paranoia. These kids’ behavior turns ugly and fast, with Bert and Jeff choosing to think of themselves first. When one character becomes the first to get sick, that person gets locked away, almost mercilessly, in a nearby shed. Here’s a movie that showcases the worst in people, but with an energy and an honesty that we never find these kids too unlikable to not want to watch.

“Cabin Fever” would’ve worked best had the story been kept simple, dealing only with the five kids. But the filmmakers felt the need to open up the story a bit, and the result is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of oddball moments that feel added just to create a sense of uneasiness and confusion; sometimes these scenes add to the creepiness, sometimes they just come off as weak filler. A subplot involving rednecks down at the local general store, while a bit too broad, still works in upping the tension, as does a disturbing run-in with a pig farmer. But then there’s the bit with a stoner camper, which doesn’t really have much to do with anything. And what to make of the useless, clueless deputy, who’s added for cheap laughs than anything else?

The movie falls apart in its final five minutes, with one scene that’s a bit too anticlimactic, another that’s far too predictable to any horror fan, and another that exists merely to feature one very silly, very unnecessary punchline. This is one of those films that needs to end a few scenes before it actually does.

Despite these stumbles, “Cabin Fever” still works, mainly because it features all those scenes that got me to cover my eyes. What it loses by trying to be a comedy, it makes up by trying to be a showcase for the grotesque. It does what it wants to do, namely, provide immediate scares and disturbing chills. It doesn’t stay with you in a haunting way, but it does produce a genuine gut reaction.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.