Film

Cabin Fever (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Little do they know the trauma they will endure, and the complete disintegration it will wreak on their group.


Cabin Fever

Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, Joey Kern, Cerina Vincent, James DeBello, Arie Verveen, Giuseppe Andrews, Matthew Helms
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2003-09-12

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 [1974], The Evil Dead [1981]) and fast-spreading, violently wasting disease (Night of the Living Dead [1968]) to the feisty adolescent protagonists (Halloween [1982], A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]) 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 [1982]), 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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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