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CABIN FEVER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, Joey Kern, Cerina Vincent, James DeBello
Director:  Eli Roth
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Lions Gate
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  January 20, 2004

“I want to go home…”

Film **

Eli Roth certainly knows his horror…he wears his love for the genre on his sleeve.  Listening to him talk about his favorite films and how they affected and molded the course of his life is enough to make you believe he has a really great, groundbreaking and influential horror film inside him somewhere.  Unfortunately, Cabin Fever isn’t quite it.

I don’t have a problem with a filmmaker showing homage to the movies that influenced him, but when I start yearning for THOSE films while watching HIS, something’s gone wrong.  Cabin Fever is part The Thing, 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, Cujo, Deliverance and more…and I kept wishing I was watching one of those instead.

The breakdown:  five college students (three guys, two gals) head to a cabin they’ve rented in the woods to celebrate post-exam life.  On the way there, they meet some strange southern stereotypes at a store (one of whom utters a bold bit of needless offense, resolved at the end of the film in a way that’s even MORE offensive), which is supposed to either set up a creepy atmosphere or generate some laughs.  Awkwardly, it does neither.

While at the cabin, they have sex, drink beers, and meet up with two people:  one has a vicious dog and lots of weed, the other has some sort of horrible disease that makes him vomit and ooze blood.  Understandably freaked out by the guy, the kids try to chase him away from their cabin and their truck, but inadvertently set fire to him and kill him (hey, guys…I know what YOU did last summer!!).

The disease is contagious, and soon the quintet is eyeing one another to see who has it.  They start avoiding each other like the plague (no pun intended).  But of course, they start succumbing to the illness in increasingly gruesome ways.  My favorite is the girl who shaves her leg only to take off a bit more than some unwanted hair…ouch!!

This basic premise is punctuated here and there by bits like another southern stereotype for a deputy (“Hey, party man!”) and the continual re-appearance of that stupid dog, who seems to serve no purpose but to add a bit of action to more lifeless scenes.

Horror has become something akin to jazz in that it should be one of the most open and imaginative of the genres, but suffers stagnation because of the lack of something original breathing fresh life into it.  The Blair Witch Project was an exception of doing something out of the norm and being effective for it, but for most modern horror pictures, we know what to expect.  The question isn’t whether or not it’s original, just whether or not it’s done well.

Roth tries to juggle bits of humor in with his singularly grotesque vision, and it never works.  Films that do that well like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive make it look easier than it really is, I suppose.  Both of those movies blended comedy with gore, but in Cabin Fever, the visuals and the premise are a little to unsettling to offset with cheap laughs.

I admired the passion for his art and his fearlessness in his style, but like a lot of recent horror offerings, Roth’s film doesn’t really know how to scare.  It knows how to startle and how to repulse, but those aren’t the same thing.  The uninitiated may be shocked, and possibly even truly horrified, but the veterans will understand that there’s not much envelope left to push in the gore genre.

Roth shows some promise in the margins, and I maintain that he still has a better horror film in his future.  Hopefully he’s gotten this kind of mayhem out of his system, and his next project will show a more mature artist searching his soul and finding something REALLY scary.

Video ***1/2

This is a kickin’ anamorphic transfer from Lions Gate, one that delivers every gruesome visual with unapologetic flair.  The picture boasts a lot of dark scenes, but no grain or distortion mar the images.  Colors are well presented and detail is strong; only a couple of scenes seem to be a little over saturated.  High marks.

Audio ***

There’s plenty of dynamic range here with a number of “boom-scares” along the way.  The .1 channel keeps the lower end of the music score rumbling, and the rear stage opens up to add atmospheric effect.  Signals are balanced and clear, and dialogue (and screams) come through cleanly.

Features ****

There are five, count ‘em, FIVE commentary tracks to choose from.  You can listen to Eli Roth on his own, you can listen to the girls in the cast, or the guys, or the filmmakers as a team.  Rider Strong gets his own commentary because, as the menu screen explains, he couldn’t shut up.  The cast commentaries are kind of fun, but Roth talks openly about his background and his love of horror films, so it’s probably the best listen.

A production featurette brings us closer to the cast and examines the effects, make-up, effects and more.  There are three stop motion animated shorts by Roth featuring “The Rotten Fruit”, a raunchily outrageous rock band of fruits and vegetables.  Three features are jokes:  activate “Chick Vision”, and a pair of hands actually cover up the screen during the horrible moments to simulate a girl covering her eyes (hey, they said it, not me).  The “family friendly” version takes everything offensive or disturbing out of the film, which then runs maybe one minute.  Finally, “pancakes” is a short video that makes no sense about a sequence in the film that made no sense.  Rounding out are some trailers and a rather cool and disturbing animated menu.

Summary:

Cabin Fever was crafted with passion but sans originality.  It’s diverting enough for the non-discriminating, but if you have your sights set on being more scared than grossed out, you might be disappointed.