Director: Eli Roth
Writer: Eli Roth, Randy Pearlstein
Producer: Eli Roth, Sam Froelich, Evan Astrowsky, Lauren Moews
Stars: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern, Arie Verveen, Giuseppe Andrews
Five friends find themselves trapped at a cabin in the woods when a deadly flesh-eating virus begins to spread.
Since making his feature film directorial debut with “Cabin Fever” in 2002, Eli Roth has endeared himself to the horror community with several critically and commercially successful projects, as well a near omnipresent availability for personable interviews, various commentaries, and assorted film festival appearances. Simultaneously, Roth has indirectly inspired contempt from some vocal fans that perceive him as a blight on the genre, whether it stems from a hatred for mainstream success they feel is undeserved, or an unfavorable opinion based on rumors of an arrogant Hollywood sellout persona.
While nowhere near as controversial of a filmmaker as Uwe Boll, or as divisive as say Tom Six, there is still a love him or hate him aura clouding Eli Roth whenever his name is discussed. No matter what side of his fence someone might fall on, it says something that he has achieved such talked-about status when he has only directed three films over a ten-year period.
That nebulous introduction is warranted when reviewing “Cabin Fever” over a decade after the fact because enough time has passed that any thoughts someone has developed about Eli Roth in the interim are likely to color a contemporary appreciation of his first film. At the same time, it matters to consider the timeframe in which the movie was released as important in understanding its continued appeal.
2002 was post-Scream, yet pre-Cabin in the Woods, when self-awareness was hip, but had not yet evolved into full-on genre parody. “Cabin Fever” reflects equal tweaks of spoof, homage, retro style, and wink-wink cleverness for a tone that is gruesome above all else, but relieved with enough quick pinpricks of humor to make for a mood of not-so-serious horror entertainment. Eli Roth is having fun playing on and off of scary movie clichés, and the audience is always in on the joke.
The reasons to despise “Cabin Fever” as derivative are the same reasons to enjoy it as intentionally playful with typical tropes. Five friends pack their jeep full of beer and head out to the woods for a hard-partying weekend of booze, bongs, boobs, and bb guns. The down home good girl, materialistic sass mouth, preppy slickster, meatheaded joker, and generic good guy use words like “gay” and “retarded” as casual adjectives not to be unlikable louts, but because they are average college kids behaving like twentysomethings do. The script is not trying to be offensive. It is trying to be honest about how this story is expected to be depicted.
The core quintet runs across a backwoods shopkeeper, hillbilly hermit, and assorted other stereotypes for a movie that knows precisely how to wash recycled ideas in a fresh bath of post-modern perspective. When a flesh-eating virus causes chaos for everyone in the cabin as well as a nearby town of country bumpkins, “Cabin Fever” descends into a meld of contagion calamity, redneck rampage, and don’t go in the woods terror that sends up the triteness of those concepts while respectfully using their advantages to craft a funny mix of ghastly splendor.
“Cabin Fever” has a “bring it on” attitude of pulling no punches with the way it embraces silliness without compromising its identity as a horror film. The gore is unflinching. Try not to grit teeth when the sexpot slides a shaving razor slowly across her infected shin. Or when a conspicuously timed ladder rung collapse sends Rider Strong tumbling atop a charred corpse buzzing with flies in a contaminated water reservoir. They may not be highbrow moments, but they are memorable.
The simplicity to it all is what makes the movie’s modern classic status questionable for future generations. When attitudes completely calcify to the brand of entertainment “Cabin Fever” offers, and memory fades about what it brought to the genre at the time, it does wobble on hollow legs of subplots that reach a little too desperately. Although for every unnecessary character like Grim or pointless Peeping Tom encounter, there is an equally pointless, yet immensely more satisfying, scene like mullet-coiffed Dennis screaming about pancakes while karate kicking in slow motion.
It should simply be remembered that “Cabin Fever” owes some of its success to arriving at a time when its stylish blend of joke gags, gore gags, predictability, and fearlessness fit snugly into a slot that had not yet been overfilled. And Eli Roth was there to fill a void of new horror filmmaking icon when fandom was seeing its Mount Rushmore of Carpenter, Romero, Argento, and Craven age well into senior status.
Review Score: 75