Sunday, October 25, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: Cabin Fever

 editor's note: while the Cap'n is waiting to watch The Green Inferno or Knock Knock, here's a look back at Eli Roth's first film.

Today the Cap'n will be looking back at a more recent film I have an interesting history with, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. As the film was partially shot in North Carolina (Mocksville, Danbury, Winston-Salem, and High Point), there was a big to-do made of its release in 2003 at The Carousel in Greensboro: the lobby was covered with camping-related paraphernalia, the insides of the candy displays tainted with bloodstains, and production stills and press information were abundant. I remember this because I saw the film with a soon-to-be roommate in a packed auditorium of gorehounds looking for their horror fix.

And they got it, in abundance: Cabin Fever is, whatever else it may strive to be, an effective and mostly disgusting horror film. In that respect, I recall being impressed with Roth's first feature length film. As I wrote in a 2003 recap:

Cabin Fever - Eli Roth learned a thing or two from Evil Dead. That's crucial to understanding the marketing behind this low budget gem. Cabin Fever is atypical of horror movies, and that bugs a lot of horror fans, but this isn't quite a scare fest. It's a genre bender, pitting the cast of a Teen Sex Comedy in a Cabin in the Woods Horror Movie. While it has problems (the movie doesn't know where to end and stumbles a bit in the final act), it's nevertheless a nice first film to build a career of off, and they marketed the shit out of this movie (when i went to see it, great steps were made to replicate set pieces, "authentic" paraphernalia, etc.) plus it doesn't look as cheap as it was to make, and there are some wonderful nods to past cheapie thrillers.

My compatriot hated the movie. In fact, he still hates the movie, for reasons I can't fault him for. After talking about Cabin Fever several times, I almost totally flipped on the mixed-to-positive review and decided that the film's weaknesses overcame its strengths. I convinced myself that the Peter Jackson blurb on the poster (and subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray releases) was hyperbolic, and that the film's seriously uneven tone rendered the whole experience moot.

But that wasn't the end for me; for whatever reason, I couldn't shake Cabin Fever, couldn't totally sell myself on the write-off, even if there are serious problems with the movie (which I promise I will actually get to in a moment). So I picked up a used rental copy from Hollywood Video (or Blockbuster, I can't recall), and watched it again. I had the same mixed reaction, and ended up selling the movie when money got tight. But then I'd see it used again somewhere when things weren't so rough. Friends began poking fun at me, asking why I'd keep buying "something you hated"? I didn't have a good answer, so I watched Cabin Fever again last night, for the first time in three or four years.

The damnedest thing is that for 90% of the film, Eli Roth made a really good horror film. Yes, it has lots of little nods to The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Burning, and Friday the 13th, but beyond that Roth has the essentials down pat in constructing a solid horror film. He sets up the stakes well, isolates the characters, provides semi-credible reasons why the college students partying in the cabin might have trouble finding help nearby, ratchets up the gore in a disturbing way, and sets the characters against each other without ever feeling forced.

What doesn't work, the other 10% (with one exception), happens either before they're introduced to the virus or after they try to get back to town. Everything in between the set-up and the closing works fine, save for the introduction of Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), a moment so atypical of the rest of the film, so reminiscent of Twin Peaks (not coincidentally, as Roth worked for David Lynch prior to Cabin Fever) right down to the specially written Angelo Badalamenti theme, that it grinds the horror to a halt.

The rest of the major issues come at critical points in setting up or resolving characters, which is why Cabin Fever leaves many with a bad taste in their mouths. I will provide a handy list, which is vaguely spoiler, although at this point in the review I'm taking it on faith you've already seen the film:

- Bert (James DeBello) and the "squirrel shooting" scene.
- The harmonica guy.
- The really fake deer.
- The lines "because they're gay," "don't be gay," and "what are you, retarded?"
- The "pancakes" kid, his dad, and the strangely effeminate store owner.
- Actually, just about everything that happens at the General Store.
- Marcy (Cerina Vincent)'s opening speech about college.
- A misleading racist joke at the beginning of the film that has a payoff at the end that, at best, feels disingenuous.

I'm torn about Grim, Eli Roth's stoner interloper that shows up right after Bert, Marcy, Paul (Rider Strong), Jeff (Joey Kern), and Karen (Jordan Ladd) show up at the cabin. On the one hand, there's nothing really funny about his stupid dog joke or the fact that he really only exists so that there's one more body for Paul to find. His dog, Doctor Mambo, could have been anybody's around the lake and the threat would be just as credible. On the other hand, I did laugh at how stupid the dog joke is (sorry, I won't spoil that one for you), and it makes up for the random and sort of pointless "bowling alley" story that Paul tells at the campfire.

The problem is that the tone of everything listed above is so incongruous with the rest of the film, so decidedly quirky, that it disrupts the horror, and not in a good way. I'm all for breaking the tension with a well placed joke (Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson do it masterfully), but the "jokes" in Cabin Fever aren't so much funny as they are really strange. They don't seem to belong in the same universe as the horror film we're watching, and their presence while audiences settle and and right before they leave do undermine the rest of the movie, which is, again, really good.

I am aware that the Blu-Ray of Cabin Fever is a director's cut, one that apparently smooths over the jagged edges of the film, and having watched it again and (mostly) enjoyed the experience, I think I'll look into that cut. While I can't find any fault in the criticisms of the Cabin Fever I saw then and again tonight, there is enough of a pretty damn good horror movie inside to keep me from dismissing it again.

Oh, by the way: while it's not apparently on the Blu-Ray, the DVD has an extra called "Chick Vision" that raises a pair of silhouetted hands over the screen during "scary" parts, and it's actually kind of fun in small doses. I don't know that I could watch the whole film that way, but it might be fun for parties.

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