Remember when Eli Roth was supposed to be the next big thing in American horror? His 2002 film Cabin Fever sported an old-school love of gleeful gore, nudity for nudity's sake, and quirky humor that helped set it apart from most of the horror spectrum at the time. Then he made the Hostel movies. Eight years later and in the aftermath of a renaissance (if you can call it that) of splatter and torture porn, it's hard to figure out why anybody thought Cabin Fever was such a big deal in the first place. Far be it from me to disagree with Peter Jackson, but the best thing Roth has ever done was play the Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds. Famously inspired by Roth's own run-in a nasty skin infection, Cabin Fever takes a straight-from-central-casting group of young friends, dumps them in an isolated forest cabin, and lets very bad things happen to them. The very bad thing in question is a nasty flesh-eating virus that begins rotting them alive, even as their growing paranoia drives them apart and sets this against each other. Along the way, a girl fails to notice that she's shaving the rotten skin off her own leg, a guy falls directly onto a floating corpse after poking it with a stick for no apparent reason, and that same guy so misjudges the location of a girl's vagina that he spends several minutes fingering her leg wound.
So, yeah. Your average below-average horror-movie yahoos. I'm not saying I expect my horror flicks populated with MENSA members or anything, but it'd be nice if these kids didn't continually demonstrate such a pervasive and fatal lack of common sense. It's one thing for a slasher film to give us nothing but annoying, paper-thin cut-outs -- they exist for no reason other than to be murdered and maimed in creative and amusing ways. That's fine. And I realize the Cabin Fever kids ultimately serve the same purpose, but Roth and Randy Pearlstein's script toys with Thing-like explorations of paranoia and the struggle between self-preservation and empathy, only to undercut any such narrative aspirations with stupid, unlikable characters.
The only character in the film who acts in a remotely reasonable manner is the cowardly and self-obsessed Jeff (Joey Kern), and when anyone else approaches a sensible course of action, they're undercut by ill luck or insane locals. The deck is so artificially stacked against the main characters in order to keep them trapped at the cabin, after a while it just becomes ridiculous. Placing obstacles in your characters' way is good drama; twisting logic into knots just so you don't have to be very clever with those obstacles is lazy.
Still, perhaps I'm expecting more out of Cabin Fever than Eli Roth ever intended. It's pretty clear that Roth just wanted the movie to be a fun, gorey throwback to a simpler time when the stage blood flowed almost as freely as the gratuitous nudity. In his review of the sequel, our own Brian Holcolmb smartly compared the Cabin Fever franchise to a cinematic expansion of the game "What's grosser than gross," and on that level it certainly succeeds. There's no shortage of ick on display, and if you love horror movies primarily for the wince factor, you'll find plenty to love here.
Cabin Fever also has the good sense never to take itself seriously. Whether you find Roth's sense of humor funny or just kind of annoying will determine whether or not that's a good thing. The script goes out of its way to plaster the walls with quirk, from the desperate-to-be-cool local cop who just wants to party, to the mute blonde kid who will fuck your shit up if you dare sit next to him on his bench. For me, these eccentric characters too often become examples of people acting ludicrously for no reason other than the writers' convenience. It definitely sets an off-kilter tone that lends a sense of unease to the proceedings, but I would have happily sacrificed some of the lunacy in exchange for some logic.
Is Cabin Fever a bad movie? Nah. It's a perfectly serviceable example of the genre, a few notches above the direct-to-DVD stuff you'll find glutting up the Instant Watch section of Netflix or your local Walmart bargain bin. But it's also nothing special. It's hard not to conclude that most of the film's buzz had more to do with the state of the horror genre at the time than it did with Cabin Fever's actual strengths as a movie. Lionsgate has assembled a decent set of special features for this so-called "Unrated Director's Cut." According to Roth in his commentary, the changes between theatrical and director's cuts are all pretty minor, mostly a few extended moments that don't change the story but just help sell the tone or the characters. Roth points out most of these in the commentary, alongside actors Rider Strong (Boy Meets World), Jordan Ladd (the naked gymnast from Club Dread), Cerina Vincent (the naked European girl from Not Another Teen Movie), and Joey Kern (the "He's already pulled over" guy from Super Troopers). Roth does a good job shepherding the commentary and balancing between production anecdotes, silliness, and heartfelt thanks to Cerina Vincent for taking her clothes off. If there's a drawback it's that Roth and his cast clearly enjoyed this movie a lot more than I did. You'll find less zaniness but more solid behind-the-scenes info in the "Beneath the Skin" making-of featurette.
Things get weird after that. You've got a handful of Roth's "Rotten Fruit" shorts, the stop-motion adventures of the world's greatest rock band, which happens to be composed of fruits. I mean produce. The shorts are basically an excuse for snack-on-snack violence. They're worth a chuckle or two, but the joke gets old fast. From there, we've got the cryptically named "Pancakes!" which is a brief video of Dennis the crazy karate kid doing a fairly impressive martial arts routine while accompanied by a pounding rock track. Audition video maybe? Got me. Eli Roth also introduces the "family-friendly" cut of the film, which is a joke you'll see coming a mile away. But, I will admit, I still laughed.
Tie it all up with the theatrical trailer and a photo gallery, and we've got a solid extras package. We're not wading into "Two-Disc Definitive Edition" territory, but if there's anything you care to know about Cabin Fever, you'll probably find it here to satisfy you. The "headshot cannon" footage alone is worth the price of admission.
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