2003 has been a banner year for horror movies – and we haven’t even hit the Halloween rush. “Cabin Fever” is the second truly innovative horror flick to make its way to American cinemas this year. Sure, we had to deal with stinkers like Darkness Falls and Jeepers Creepers 2, but 2003 has also given us contemporary classics like 28 Days Later and now “Cabin Fever.”
Like “28 Days Later,” “Cabin Fever” uses a fairly tired premise. In 28 Days Later, it was zombies. In “Cabin Fever,” it is the mysterious killer in the woods. However, both films found a refreshing twist. 28 Days Later gave us frenetic, wild zombies that didn’t just lumber through the woods at a gate slower than an arthritic mule. In “Cabin Fever,” the twist is that the killer isn’t human. It’s a contagious flesh-eating disease.
Yeah, the thought of it kind of makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it?
As the movie began, I felt that I was being taken down the same old road with five college students heading into the woods for a camping trip. But just as their aimless dialogue starts to get on your nerves, a man infected with the disease comes to their cabin for help. They accidentally set him on fire after he tries to steal their truck. The kids think they’ve moved past the terror – until they find themselves infected.
The violence is harsh and the gore is grisly. And all of it is handled with the unrelenting intensity of Evil Dead (the first one, not the campy sequel). In fact, this movie is very similar to Evil Dead only without the supernatural element.
There are some traps that first time writer/director Eli Roth falls into, most notably the heavy handed approach he takes in some scenes. For example, after panning across an infected dead body in water that pipes into the house, then focusing on every glass of water or tea that the kids were drinking for the next 30 minutes, I felt the urge to stand up in the theater and yell, “All right! I get it! There’s something in the water!”
Additionally, the characters do some really stupid things (like not leaving the cabin the second they see something amiss). And they tend to follow a “Seinfeld” model of morality in which it’s ethically okay for them to set an injured man on fire, but when a local shopkeeper uses the N-word, he’s worthless racist scum.
While “Cabin Fever” takes its horror very seriously, it still shows that it has a sense of humor – not just in the scenes of the film itself, but by its marketing campaign as well. If the pun in the title doesn’t get you, surely the hilarious tag lines “TERROR…IN THE FLESH” and “CATCH IT” will.
“Cabin Fever” is cast in the tradition of other groundbreaking horror films in the past, that is to say it is cast with relative unknowns. No need to throw $20 million at Will Smith or Julia Roberts (although who wouldn’t want to watch any of the $20 million club slowly devoured by flesh-eating bacteria?). The most recognizable face is Rider Strong from “Boy Meets World” fame, and that’s just funny in itself. Other actors who fit in the “haven’t I seem them somewhere before” category include Joey Kern, whose last film was the wretched Grind, and Cerina Vincent, whose entire body is recognizable as the nude foreign exchange student in Not Another Teen Movie.
Jordan Ladd (yes, that’s Cheryl’s daughter) looks good, but can’t act her way out of a wet napkin. She plays Karen, who has been close friends with Paul (Rider Strong) ever since they were kids. While he wants the relationship to go further, she keeps putting on the breaks. (I’ve seen this scenario everywhere from my own high school days to The Real Cancun.) Ladd delivers some of the worst lines of dialogue, and when her character starts disintegrating, it is not a moment too soon.
Giuseppe Andrews, whom many may recognize from parts in Detroit Rock City, American History X and Never Been Kissed, does a great job as the socially challenged Deputy Winston who just loves to party. Even in the grueling, stomach turning third act, you can always count on the incompetent Deputy Winston to make you laugh.