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If I've learned anything about the difference between right and wrong in my life, it wasn't from the ethics course I took in college. I remember a session where we talked about the importance of compassion. One woman, whose name escapes me, was saying how she would be looking out for number one, even if it meant dismissing her friends. "If they have a problem that's going to slow me down, I have to think that I'm the most important one in the room," she said.
"Um?," I said, raising my hand. "You don't need to raise your hand here, Mr. Davis," the professor told me.
"You're the most important?" I asked the girl, clarifying.
"Don't you think that's a bit cold?"
"So, I thank Christ we're not friends."
That was years ago, when I was young and even more naive than I am today. I'm still open-minded and try to think the best of people, but often I know better. I'm not a pessimist, but I'm not the optimist I used to be either. The friends I do have today, I am very proud of. They have been there for me in very hard times, and I would definitely be there for them if their backs were to the wall. I truly believe I would even risk my own life if it meant helping them out through a tough time. CABIN FEVER begs to differ.
The set-up has been seen many times before. A bunch of college kids celebrate the end of a semester by going to some godforsaken part of rural America, for some fun and frolic in an old cabin. Our test subjects include the kinda virtuous Paul (Rider Strong - and sorry buddy, but that name's got porn written aaaaall over it), who is the innocuous center of the film. The object of Paul's affection is Karen (Jordan Ladd - THE SPECIALS, NOWHERE), who is not frigid. She's just frigid with Paul - instead, choosing to lust after people that sound like they are just completely wrong for her. Jeff (Joey Kern - GRIND) is the Ivy League pretty boy who seems to have a young Patrick Bateman edge to him. His girlfriend, Marcy (Cerina Vincent - the nude exchange student in NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE; Oh, I thought those looked familiar!), enjoys hot sex to break the tension, or to celebrate, or to mourn, or to... well, you get the idea. Bert (James DeBello - SCARY MOVIE 2, DETROIT ROCK CITY) is the obnoxious guy who says inappropriate things, acts in an embarrassing manner and basically comes off as a humorous but volatile pain in the ass. When I saw the film, I wondered who would really associate with Bert. Would they be friends enough to spend a vacation with them in the woods? Then, as I examined it, yes, they probably would. He's the guy who adds to the party and who never gets laid, but you keep him around because he's good for some laughs and everyone senses a vulnerability behind the arrogant exterior.
The character set-ups are an obligatory series of scenes, which would be glossed over if it wouldn't be completely disorienting. Director and co-writer Eli Roth tries to make this a bit more interesting by introducing us to some of the eccentrics in town. Oh yes, the town has its eccentrics. If you are living in a backwoods community by choice, you are to some degree insane. It's a common teaching of American filmmaking. Being more of a city person, I'm not overly anxious to disagree, but it does seem a tad disingenuous to the better part of the country. Give CABIN FEVER credit for upping the anty, for showing them as strange but oddly humanized characters. More on these people later.
The group gets to the cabin and decides to settle in. Jeff and Marcy have hot and humorous sex that features one of the funnier climaxes in the film. Paul and Karen go swimming, where he tries to reveal his true feelings for her. If this were your standard film, this would be a recurring theme, brought up and interrupted again and again, until Karen realizes her dream lover is right in front of her. Sorry, guys, wrong movie. Bert, the fifth wheel of the group, heads out to the woods to shoot short and furry things. Since he's the one person with no chance of scoring in the film, I'm sure there's something Freudian about this ritual, particularly given his assessment of the local wildlife.
Bert shoots at the first thing to dart into his path. Unfortunately, it's not a squirrel, but a derelict-looking person (Arie Verveen - DESCENDANT) who seems to be covered in blood. Bert tries to reassure him but freaks out and leaves instead. Later that night, he returns and when he begins to get sick, he is violently dispatched by the group. I won't tell you what happens, but it's just not a good day to be a diseased hermit. It's the first appearance of a recurring theme. Despite all their self-assuring morals, when confronted with sickness and death, they react with fear and violence. It's the same deep-seeded fear that is reflected in quarantines and hate crimes that blame homosexuals for the AIDS virus.
People react to the confrontation in different ways. No one is more guilt-stricken than Karen is. It's almost as if she invites karma in, since she takes to drinking the local water, which just happens to be infected by a certain rotting diseased corpse.
As the group falls victim to a flesh-eating virus, the gore and the pathos are upped with equal measure. Faced with their own mortality, the group quickly turns on each other. Jeff becomes the most paranoid while Paul and Marcy at least try to help out. One by one, the youngsters start looking the worse for wear. It's the film's most blatant attempt to squash the idea of a glamorous cast. This virus which robs them of their features systematically destroys everyone's beauty. Big bloody chunks of meat drop off, rashes run rampant and puss-dripping scabs and pustules are all over the place. Certainly nothing that's going to make the cover of People. CABIN FEVER is an ugly film whose serene widescreen projection smashes the facade of the beautiful wilderness as well as the beautiful people who enter it.
There is no clear-cut villain in CABIN FEVER, something that has caught many filmgoers off-guard. However, the lack of a physical Black Hat does not translate into a lack of threat or conflict. This film has villains. Look to the person on your left, now look to the person to your right. Those are the villains. Whether those people are strangers, neighbors, friends, lovers or family, they are a threat to you. After all they want to save their own skin - literally. CABIN FEVER is a thoroughly cynical film. I don't totally agree with its view of the human race, but I applaud its ability to drive the point home convincingly.
The strange characters that the cast runs into make up much of the running time. The first half-hour gives us some of these people - most memorably a deceptively nice-looking mullet kid and a seemingly racist shopkeeper, which plays into the whole "expect the unexpected" motif. Some of the town's more colorful characters play an important part in the film, and some are just... there. There are sections of the film that could have been lifted out without much consequence, as they only play into Eli Roth's vision of quirkiness. It has caused many to compare this to the work of David Lynch. Lynch even served as an executive producer in name only while the film was being shopped around, although Roth has said it was only for the name recognition. The country landscape of CABIN FEVER is a bit like TWIN PEAKS, but dirtier, with the extra stench of moonshine, in-breeding and pigs' blood.
Still, I'm reminded of an episode of TWIN PEAKS where one of the characters did a scene wearing oven mitts. When asked what the meaning was behind this, he said, "David just thought I would look really good in oven mitts." Lynch is a genius, but sometimes he's just weird for the sake of being weird. That's how some of these scenes play. Although some characters serve as false alarms to the contagion and other townspeople do become involved in the storyline, there are a few - the townie with the hot wife for instance - that seem to have no purpose whatsoever. And we're left wondering why we're wasting time on this when there's a flesh-eating virus to get back to. Because of this, the film does tend to drag a bit, even at 94 minutes.
Incidentally, I will feel awfully stupid if I start noticing the importance of these characters in later viewings. Already, I've noticed some significance of the Bunny Man.
But there are plenty of frights to be found here. Eli Roth likes blood and sex, and here he gives you both. A lot of both. One scene involving the simple act of leg shaving even had me wincing. Gore and nudity have made a comeback in the horror film and both are on display, thank God.
The virus thing draws many parallels. Just like 28 DAYS LATER, the obvious temptation is to see the virus as a metaphor for AIDS or the recent SARS epidemic. And that idea is certainly there. When AIDS started breaking, some called it everything from plague to divine judgement - both of which are wrong. AIDS is just another horrible disease, one we're still trying to overcome. The SARS outbreak had people staying clear of Toronto, as if the whole city were going to be ground zero for the Captain Tripp's virus. But what could be most frightening about CABIN FEVER is that the plot does seem so plausible. We have no idea where our next epidemic will come from. Who needs metaphor? This is ripped from the headlines.
Some have called CABIN FEVER a return to the low-budget shockers of the seventies. Frankly, I don't see it. This is not a grindhouse film, despite it's unsanitized look. At times, the film plays appropriate homage to previous horror classics. Part of the third act seems lifted directly from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. David Hess' brilliant songs from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT appear on the soundtrack. Really I can't tell you how bad I wanted to sing along to "Wait for the Rain." Still, the only films I was vaguely reminded of were stinkers like THE CURSE and John Frankenheimer's PROPHECY, which share some similar thematic elements. It would be wrong to call this film a rip-off of anything, or a nostalgic cash-in. CABIN FEVER is a film that doesn't belong to any one decade, which is to it's credit. I have a feeling that, with a couple scenes as exceptions, CABIN FEVER will play very well fifteen to twenty years from now.
But what is interesting about CABIN FEVER is that despite how grim everything is, almost verging on nihilism, it is not dead serious. You're so overwhelmed by the paranoia, terror and grotesque imagery, that only days later do you realize just how funny the film is. Roth delivers a lot of laughs in the film's running time that had me remembering the film with a smile on my face, despite the uneasy feeling I got upon leaving the theatre.
Many have hyped CABIN FEVER for about a year, as if it were the Second Coming. Will this single-handedly redefine horror for years to come? Of course not. Neither will HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, 28 DAYS LATER, WRONG TURN, FRAILTY or any other film that we've heard the hype about. But it is a means to an end. The most we can hope for is that all of these films, taken as a whole, will have an indelible effect on the film industry. 2003 is a great year for horror, folks. Taken by itself, CABIN FEVER is just good, but definitely not clean, fun.