I was recently preparing to write an article for this website about the recent upsurge in good horror movies. My inspiration came after sitting through a handful of imaginative, innovative horror pictures over the last year: The Ring, House of 1000 Corpses, May and Dante Tomaselli’s stunning DVD release of Horror, to name a few. My enthusiasm for this piece diminished, however, after seeing typically crappy horror fare like Freddy vs. Jason and the new Cabin Fever. Here’s a movie that has been generating phenomenal buzz for months, beginning at the prominent Toronto Film Festival. The word was that this independent production was going to be the next Blair Witch Project. What it really is, is another assembly line piece of schlock that blatantly rips off plenty of much better movies.
If I told you the premise involved five young people vacationing at a cabin that is isolated in the middle of the woods, would that remind you of any other movies you’d seen? In this case, the five characters include Paul (Rider Strong), the “nice guy” who has a crush on Karen (Jordan Ladd). She’s a bit of a tease, so he doesn’t know if she feels the same way about him or not. Their friends Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent) definitely feel the same way about each other; these two sexaholics can barely keep their hands to themselves. Then there’s Burt (James DeBello), the stereotypical overgrown fratboy who is happy as long as he’s holding a cold beer.
To make a very short story even shorter, the gang discovers that there’s a flesh-eating virus loose in the woods. One by one, they all catch it. Because they are so isolated – and because their truck is conveniently incapacitated early in the film – they are stuck there to die. Occasionally a stranger happens upon them, such as Deputy Winston (Guiseppe Andrews), a nimrod law enforcement official who is more interested in talking about partying than he is in helping these out-of-towners fight off a deadly virus.
Here are some words that come to mind when I think of Cabin Fever: sick, disgusting, vile, nauseating, gross, stomach-churning. Here are some words that do not come to mind: scary, frightening, eerie, suspenseful, entertaining.
Let me explain: Cabin Fever is the kind of movie that exhibitors (meaning your local theater) probably hate because it will kill the concession business. Blood and gore have always been a staple of horror movies, but this one is so downright nasty that it may send people fleeing from their seats. There are endless close-ups of rotted, decaying flesh, including shots of characters whose genital areas are infected with the virus. Anyone who catches the disease – which, in this case, is everybody – begins violently vomiting blood. There is also a surprising number of scenes involving animal abuse: a dog gets the virus and is shown with his mid-section rotted away, a pig is graphically sliced open to reveal decomposing organs, etc. Of course, no real animals were hurt in the production of this movie, but that doesn’t mean any of this is pleasant to look at.
The bigger picture is that none of it is scary, either. Sickening, yes, but not scary. There’s no tension built around the virus, and it’s a foregone conclusion that everyone will contract it. The story needed some reason for us to care. The characters are all morons, so we don’t care about them, and the origin of the virus is never fully explained, so we have no investment in its spread. A flesh-eating virus seems scary in and of itself, but in the context of a movie, you need to have a story build around such a thing. Cabin Fever essentially just uses the virus as a way of shooting fish (i.e. the characters) in a barrel for its own amusement.
It’s obvious that writer/director Eli Roth wanted to make a modern equivalent of Sam Raimi’s brilliant Evil Dead 2. That film balanced a high gore quotient with raucously funny black humor. Cabin Fever certainly has moments that are intended to be funny (a few actually work), but the mix isn’t right. Raimi balanced the gore and the comedy perfectly, so that you never knew whether to laugh or to puke. Roth, on the other hand, tosses sickening violence at you, then adds some “wacky” bit of comedy that usually seems out of place. He’s like a chef who can’t quite find the right mixture of ingredients to create the meal.
Although the movie clearly tips its hat to Evil Dead 2, I couldn’t help but think of another horror movie that came out this year. 28 Days Later also dealt with a virus that infected people, causing them to spew blood. That picture not only created a disturbing sense that the characters were isolated, it also made the threat of the virus seem real. I liked 28 Days Later. It gave me the creeps. It kept me involved. Cabin Fever merely lived up to its title; I felt trapped inside the theater and had an itchy feeling because I wanted out so badly.
( 1/2 out of four)
Cabin Fever is rated R for strong violence and gore, sexuality, language and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.
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