Posted: 09/16/2003

 

Cabin Fever

(2003)

by Barry Meyer



A screaming, bloody mess of a horror movie.


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There has been a lot of discussion about the lack of horror in horror movies these days, and Cabin Fever made the grand promise that it would be the resurrection of the classic 70s gore style horror. Director and co-writer Eli Roth echoed the dreary dismay of many horror fans by lamenting that the creepies have crept out of their favorite film genre, and Cabin Fever soon became the shining beacon that would lead the docile horror world out of its stale crypt and bring it back to its bloodied roots. But what was intended to be a revisionist nod to the gore movie, turned out to be just another uninspired rip-off that merely lifted the bones from the grave, and then drove another nine inch nail into the slowly dying horror genre casket.

You’ve heard the proverb that money is the root of all evil. Well, apparently it’s also the death of all evil in horror movies. No doubt Roth’s original concept and script was dripping with genuine chills and thrills, so much so that it got the attention of oddball maverick director David Lynch, whose name then attached a decent budget, and attracted a big FX company to boot. And herein lies the problem—not just with Cabin Fever but with horror movies in general—big money does not equal good horror. The simple law of low budget filmmaking is that with no money the filmmaker is forced to focus his imagination on how to creatively get the story across. But with gobs of cash at the ready the film turns into simply a toy for the filmmaker, and a cash cow for the producers. With a budget larger than Roth knew what to do with (and then some) he ignorantly forged ahead declaring that he was making his passionate tribute to low budget gore, while disregarding the simple notion that the sum total budgets of all the movies he professed to pay homage to were eclipsed by his one solitary movie.

The greatest disappointment with Cabin Fever is that it had the bones of a terrific horror movie, and not just the ones exposed under the gory skin on the screen. There was a genuine enough twist on the old kids-in-the-woods routine with a flesh-eating virus taking the place of the usual hack-happy maniac on the loose; and there was a director/writer who seemed to have a sincere desire to make a real horror movie, worthy of the ones that he cherished himself. But somewhere along the dark path through the woods, Roth’s passion got so tangled up in target demographics and focus groups, that when he finally made it out and to the theater he had a movie so fragmented in its personality that even Norman Bates would be left scratching his feeble head.

For a gore movie this film was embarrassingly timid, and it failed on several occasions to deliver the promised goods. Yeah, there were a mess of people with gunshot squibs exploding, but that’s not necessarily even a horror staple. There were also several gallons of blood being slopped around, but even that’s not necessarily a horror staple. Blame it on whomever you want—Roth, the studio, the test audience—but what kind of gore movie fails to show one person being killed in some manner that is unspeakable? There’s a long drawn out build up of a feral dog that hangs around the fringes, growling and snapping its canines at the kids in the cabin, but when it finally lunges in for the big payoff attack, the audience witnesses nothing but a red hued POV shot of the dog’s mad chase. Then it cuts to the dimly lit shot of the dog standing over its bloodied victim. No teeth ripping flesh from the screaming victim, no blood splattered incisors with dangling tendrils—nothing! Another scene has one of the cabin kids plunging a pointed branch into his attacker, killing him as he tries to crawl away. But for some reason the deed is done right out of camera range. Subtlety in a gore movie! What kind of gore movie is this? ‘Baby’s First Gore Movie’? (I predict that the DVD will have the directors cut with all of this footage back into place—but too little too late!)

More puzzling was Roth’s misguided attempts to inject humor into the mix. This is not to say that humor is an abject concept to horror, because, clearly when used correctly it can be a useful device—Hitchcock proved that very well. But Roth’s inept attempts became so confusing at times that he seemed to be making a comedy instead of horror. Entire scenes were crafted which were played out purely for comic effect, and they even involved characters who stepped in to act all funny, only to completely disappear from the movie. It was as though the SNL cast stepped in to entertain the audience during an intermission from the horror movie. The result was just a pretentious display at how witty and clever the director thought he could be.
Roth has gleefully declared his love for horror movies in countless articles and interviews, and acknowledged that he took many cues from many films of which he is a fan of, and even unabashedly confessed that he lifted scenes and even songs from them. This is not an entirely rare occurrence in film—many directors have paid homage to their idols with cinematic displays of admiration. But there is a vast difference between finding inspiration is someone else’s films—and collecting parts of them to make up your own.

Cabin Fever is an overwrought, overproduced display of the latest gory gadgetry, that seems more content with pleasing the studio heads than entertaining the audience. It’s just too bad that Roth’s passion for horror filmmaking doesn’t equal his fanaticism for watching horror movies. Roth appears to be nothing but a sellout, who will now move on to be the next anointed savior of horror, alongside such failures as Kevin Williamson.

Barry Meyer is a writer who can’t help but be soured by the fact that he can’t return to the ]70s.



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