Eli Roth, the writer and director of "Cabin Fever" had a personal goal to fulfill; to create a fresh horror film that pays serious homage to the 1980s. What resulted was a stylish, claustrophobic thriller with an unusual blend of off-color humor.
Unlike Rob Zombie who is a true horror fan who simply doesn't know how to make horror films, Eli Roth's vision is more clear, with a set tone that emphasizes cinematography and directing, while Zombie assaulted us with loud colors and acid-trip paced camera cuttings in the atrocious "House of 1000 Corpses." Roth actually paid attention the classics he admires to this day: “Night of the Living Dead,” the “Evil Dead” series and the notorious cult classic “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Like a true 1980s plot, the story is about five college students fresh from exams looking for an outlet to party. They rent a cabin out in the desolate woods probably not too far away from "Wrong Turn" where they expect to have a great time; alcohol, sex and ghost stories.
The five potential victims include: Paul ("Boy Meets World's" Rider Strong), a low-key guy who's debating whether or not to confess his feelings to the girl he's had a crush on for years, Karen (Jordan Ladd). Jeff (Joey Kern) is kind of like the un-official leader of the group and the one dating Marcy (Cerina Vincent). And finally there's Bert (James DeBello), the immature jokester who we last saw in "100 Girls" as the immature jokester.
The first night at the cabin has our five happy campers sitting around the fire while Paul narrates an extremely graphic story about a robber who holds the employees of a bowling alley hostage, tying them up in a circle so they can all watch each other get cut up and realize that "they will be next." The story is told in a flashback so we see the gruesome murders and the robber eventually bowls with the severed body parts. We cut back to the camp fire and the girls and shivering and the boys are laughing.
Now we're in the mood for some horror. As night falls, the group is accosted by staggering wanderer infected with a horrible virus. His skin is peeling and blood has stained his face red. The group doesn't know what to do; some want to help him while others want to keep him away to prevent the spread of infection. The scene ends with him leaving, but not before contaminating the site (in a way I can't reveal) with the contagious skin-eating virus.
As I'm sure you're aware, the five-some eventually start showing symptoms of fever and sickness. The beauty behind this method is that we don't have to put up with the usual stalker who hides behind the camera as he slaughters his victims. Here the villain is the virus, and eventually the group themselves as fear and hysteria cause them to turn on each other. The first infected character is quarantined against his/her will in a shed outside the cabin. While that's going on, the remaining four all have their own opinions on how to handle the crisis. With the truck no longer functioning, should they start running on foot in the middle of the night to seek help or wait until morning?
As each day passes, another one or two characters in the group contracts the deadly virus, and soon starts spewing blood everywhere making it harder for the uninfected to stay that way. Frustration soon takes over and feuds between one another has certain members of the group trying to make it on their own.
Making a horror film where a virus is the 'scary element' isn't an easy task to pull off. Fortunately, cinematographer Scott Kevan captures the scenery in long, wide pans that make the ordinary trees look tall and haunting. Hair-raising music by Angelo Badalamenti and Nathan Barr make the chase scenes through Kevan's dense forest crafty and exciting.
While watching good horror movies (and some bad) I like to position myself in the central plot. What would I have done; which character would I have most likely connected with? The answer for me is the one who is the most cautious, while selfish by focusing mainly on him/herself, that one at least has the greatest chance of surviving to see the film's credits. The eventually breakdown of the frightened group eliminates the safeguards that for awhile protected them, leaving them to face the elements. On top of that, a rabid dog is on the prowl craving human flesh.
I liked the 80s theme, but the main problem with the film is its usage of intentional humor. Whereas the older horror films unintentionally made you laugh, Roth implements forced humor into his story, and I am a strong opponent of that technique in scary movies. Audiences should be silent, not laughing. Oh, there’s plenty of chilling sequences in the film, but then it cuts to a demented child doing kung fu in slow motion or a character yelling "noooo" in that slow motion deep voice.
Horror fans, despite the film's intentional humor, will be delighted to witness the excessive amounts of blood and gore. A talented team of at least four special effects artists (Howard Berger, Garrett Immel, Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero) do a good job at pouring on the blood and letting it flow.
A few scenes you will remember for awhile: a dormant character is turned over revealing a bloody face with no upper lip, exposing the front row teeth surrounded by pulpy flesh; a female character shaves her legs in the bathtub and begins removing skin with each stroke; a decapitated head still smiling turns up in the ball return at a bowling alley, and so, so much more.
Through several interviews and behind-the-scenes first looks, it is clear that Eli Roth had a blast making the film, including his cameo role as the token stoner who stumbles onto the campground of our five friends. His goal was a great horror movie, and for the most part he succeeds.
Is the film original? Of course not. Roth wanted an 80s movie for the new millennium-generation of moviegoers and for the fans of true gritty horror, such as myself. I have issues with the humor, and it probably could have been a little scarier, but in the end it works. Kudos to Eli Roth, whose horror-movie making career is hopefully just getting started.