The Cynical Optimist remembers Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever


Retro-Review : Cabin Fever

Synopsis : Five college students rent a cabin in the woods for your run-of-the-mill vacation of binge drinking, premarital sex and Hell, who knows, maybe a little squirrel hunting if there’s time. One by one, they begin to fall victim to a horrifying flesh-eating virus, which attracts the unwanted attention of the homicidal mountain folk nearby.

Before I discuss Eli Roth’s 2002 film, let’s talk about the horror genre in the ’90s. The atrocities of Vietnam had created some of the most shocking, prolific horror films of all-time, while the ’80s saw the rise of the Slasher film as a sub-genre.

Slasher films like ”A Nightmare on Elm Street”, ”Halloween” and ”Friday the 13th” became money-making machines, and instead of funding new ideas, studios wanted to stick with the formula – and so Freddy, Jason and Michael became the end-all, be-all of the horror genre.

Which brings us to the ’90s – the general public was burned out on the Slasher, and even though America was in conflict – with the Gulf War – we defeated our adversaries so decisively – there was little time for the genre to catch up with its main inspiration (the horrors of war). Notice the spike in horror after 9/11, when the War on Terrorism began – the reign of torture porn (”Saw”, ”Hostel”) and remakes of those ’70s shockers (”Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, ”Last House on the Left”, ”I Spit On Your Grave”.)

So, what happens in the ’90s? A whole lot of nothing – Wes Craven attempted to re-imagine his own slasher creation with 1994’s New Nightmare, and followed that up with ”Scream” – a commentary on the Slasher genre. Scream would of course go on to be a modern day Slasher franchise, spawning multiple sequels.

Elements of horror were being better utilized in mainstream cinema with films like ”Silence of the Lambs”, ”Se7en” and ”The Sixth Sense”. In 1999, ”The Blair Witch Project” captivated audiences with a clever marketing campaign and a new approach to horror – the found footage gimmick.

With little to go off of from the previous decade, the new millennium saw yet another growing trend – the remake. American horror audiences were being treated to remakes of Japanese horror films like ”The Ring” and ”The Grudge”, and that’s where we’ll pick up with Eli Roth’s 2002 film, ”Cabin Fever”.

”Cabin Fever” was screened at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. Peter Jackson loved the film, and gave a quote to use in the advertising. Quentin Tarantino cited Cabin Fever as the best new American film in his ”Kill Bill Vol. 2” interview for Premiere magazine, where he called Eli Roth “The Future of Horror.”

So, how could the film not be over-hyped at this point? People fail to realize this film was made for $1.5 million dollars and had been in development since 1995. In fact, when Roth originally pitched his script to studios, the advice he got was to “make it more like Scream,” as they had recognized the money-making potential of another Slasher craze.

”Cabin Fever” was a film festival picture that got picked up and distributed – and it was Eli Roth’s first film, so it may be unfair to judge the quality of such a small, indie horror film based on the hype it was given in that film festival environment.

It’s a homage to those 80’s kids-in-a-cabin splatter films like ”Evil Dead” and ”The Burning”, but very much in the spirit of ”The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, ”The Thing”, and ”Dawn of the Dead”. The references are numerous and spirited.

Karen (Jordan Ladd) is banished to a tool shed by the group, because of her disease, such as Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) was quarantined to the tool shed by the group because he was suspected to be the Thing. The words cabin fever are even mentioned in the opening dialogue of ”The Thing” and both films open on an infected dog.

At one point, a screwdriver is shoved through someone’s right ear, echoing Romero’s ”Dawn of the Dead”, just like the zombie handyman in the department store at the mall. It’s obvious that Eli Roth loves the genre and was tired of watered down PG-13 horror films and refused to compromise on the violence or nudity, as they were essential ingredients to an ’80s-style horror film.

And this film certainly delivers on that – there’s great gore and nudity, what more could you ask for? there’s also some really tense, horrifying moments. A beautiful girl shaves her legs while taking a nice warm bubble bath, only to pull the razor and suds away to reveal the grotesque flesh-eating disease on her legs.

Or what about the part where Rider Strong’s character moves his hand slowly beneath the covers and touches Jordan Ladd, only to pull his hand back and have it covered in blood and pulp. The covers are jerked back and the disease has spread from Jordan’s panties, down her thighs.

There’s also some great elements of humor tucked in there, including an absurd moment where Rider pours Listerine on his dick after having sex with a possibly infected cabin mate. Is it a great film? No – is it worthy of cult status? Probably. I think the hype, and the fact the film even got a wide release, has overplayed its influence. As a film festival flick, ”Cabin Fever” delivers – but when compared to other fresh horror films of that time, like Rob Zombie’s ”House of 1000 Corpses”, it pales in comparison.

Final Thought: It’s interesting how Roth uses the horror archetype of the final girl and flips it on its head, using Rider Strong’s character instead of your standard lone virginal female. Paul isn’t your typical horror male lead, he’s referred to as a pussy by the more manly men of the cast.

He’s the caring sensitive guy… that is, until the girl he’s in love with is reduced to blood and bone and he has sex with another girl (the beautiful Cerina Vincent) out of desperation, as they both know they’ll no doubt die soon – and of course after playing it safe the whole film, it’s really the sex that seals his doom.