Eli Roth’s first feature comes bearing a blurby rave from none other than Peter Jackson, who knows a thing or two about freaky gross-out horror. But even if Jackson calls it “Bloody, and I do mean bloody, fantastic!”, Cabin Fever is neither so innovative nor clever about its borrowings as such quoted adulation might suggest.
That’s not to say that the usual pieces aren’t in place. Cabin Fever knows its sources and runs through a seeming check list of classic and classically subversive horror movie elements, from the terrible place (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , The Evil Dead ) and fast-spreading, violently wasting disease (Night of the Living Dead ) to the feisty adolescent protagonists (Halloween , A Nightmare on Elm Street ) and gruesome death scenes (take your pick). Such evocations are smug, which is, in its way, appropriate: irreverence is the name of this game. What’s missing, strange to say, is subtlety. While many horror flicks presume audience knowledge of the genre (“I suppose I do seem a bit sinister for a doctor,” or “Never say, ‘I’ll be right back!’”), this one lays out nearly all events as if they need explaining.
The film begins as its title dictates: five young people begin a vacation at a remote cabin (this one happens to be in rural North Carolina). In the few minutes before they arrive at their appointed place, the kids reveal their definitive (and reductive) attributes: Paul (Rider Strong) is a virgin, angling to get with the self-confident Karen (Jordan Ladd, mothered by Cheryl), his childhood friend; beautiful couple Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent) are destined to suffer consequences for their sexual expertise; and Bert (James DeBello) is the simple-minded, beer-loving frat boy.
First sign that trouble’s in store arises at the gas station/convenience store where they stop for supplies: perched outside is a seemingly inbred-androgynous boy named Dennis (Matthew Helms), who yells, “Pancakes!” and leaps from the porch (in slow motion) to bite folks who happen by. (Apparently, this performance is a big hit with the many viewers who see this film as the next “revolution” in horror: the same trick repeatedly elicits snickers and oohs.) While the Deliverance (1972) allusion is plain, the five travelers don’t pick up on it, Bert going so far as to steal a Snickers bar from the store and thus earn the abiding antipathy of store owner Old Man Caldwell (Robert Harris).
At the cabin, the kids engage in the usual “bad behaviors”—they sit by the campfire drinking and expressing (overtly or not) their sexual desires, and trade “trauma” stories in an effort to build community; this despite the admonition from Paul that “Trauma bonds people who go through it, not people you tell it to.” Little do they know the trauma they will endure, and the complete disintegration it will wreak on their group. And here the film follows in the footsteps of intelligent social commentary films, say, Night of the Living Dead, revealing that trauma can also make people mean and afraid and selfish—wholly unable to empathize with fellow victims.
By the time they’re inviting a young stranger into their group because he pulls out a huge bag of weed, it’s clear that these kids are standard horror movie dupes, awaiting some sort of moral comeuppance whose fury they cannot even imagine. This will arrive in the form of a flesh-eating virus (as Roth insists in the press notes and in interviews, the phenomenon is for real, and really grisly), carried by character the credits call a “hermit” (Arie Verveen), who staggers toward them in search of assistance. Alarmed by his appearance and persistence, they fight him off with sticks and a gun, then, when all else fails to scare him off, setting him ablaze (as Karen worries the next day, “He asked us for our help. We set him on fire,” that is, her version of grappling with guilt.)
As the hermit is not even yet dead, he plunges off through the woods and throws himself in the nearest body of water he can find, the local reservoir. And thus the disease will be spread, turning everyone into lurching zombie-like creatures with blood oozing from their pretty pores and swatches of flesh falling off their nubile limbs. The kids’ apparently willful inability to comprehend what’s happening as it’s happening is, of course, the premise of a film like this: it’s enough that you know here they’re headed and grimace just thinking about it.
Paul is allotted the most screentime, though he’s hardly remarkable (most likely, this is the point). The morning after the hermit incident, he’s accosted by a Deputy Winston Olsen (Giuseppe Andrews), a Reno 911 type who goes on about partying and what Paul’s no doubt getting from his “lady friend” (this would be Karen, who appears briefly and fretfully at the cabin door). Apparently inspired, Paul takes it on himself to comfort poor feverish and unconscious Karen, the first to drink tap water, Paul figures he might as well get some. Lying close to her on the bed, he reaches down inside her panties, perhaps thinking this is proper roofies-styled foreplay, only to pay dearly when he finds his hand slathered with her goopy, bloody, infected fluids—his eyes go wide with horror and yes, the object lesson seems clear.
Terrified of contagion, nice guy Paul and the others decide to lock Karen in the shed outside (see here: John Carpenter’s The Thing ), where she can waste away while they figure out how to get out. And just as it is needless to say that their truck has been disabled, so too is it obvious that the girls will suffer the most horrific bodily abuses, in grim-makeup-effected close-ups and communicating their fears and self-loathing (Marcy reprises, approximately, an event that afflicted the director, when she starts shaving her infected legs in the bathtub—in a word, ghastly).
Horror movies typically caution against self-love, sexual appetite, and overreaching ambition, and lately, they tend to include topical references as well (the “specter of AIDS,” for instance). Cabin Fever (made for $10 million) is no different. That its narrative structure heaves from horror to horror is also not especially novel, as many slasher films comprise a series of assault set pieces, arranged episodically, like dance numbers in a musical. The art in such a format has to do with the attention to visual and character details, not the events per se. And here, much as the kids might look shocked from moment to moment, you know what you’ll get from jump.