Saturday, April 13, 2013

Terror In The Flesh

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999–2000
THE PAPER: 2003–2004
THE HUB: 2005–2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Rated R
Running Time 1:34
Originally published September 19, 2003

What is it about CABIN FEVER that so many others see and I don’t? After seeing it at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Lionsgate Entertainment reportedly shelled out more dough (in the “high seven figures”) to distribute it than they had ever spent before. The hipsters at FILM THREAT and THE VILLAGE VOICE are going ga-ga over it without really explaining why director/producer/co-writer Eli Roth is “the real shit” or why the film “isn’t really horror” (which it obviously is). Even geek guru Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) has been quoted as calling it “brilliant.“ To paraphrase Carleton Young in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, perhaps this is a case where “when the hype becomes fact, print the hype.” Because the only thing “brilliant” about CABIN FEVER are the lights used to photograph the woody North Carolina locations.

Here’s the premise: five college students attempt to vacation at a remote cabin in the forest, only to encounter fear and death in a non-human form. What a great idea…when Sam Raimi created it in THE EVIL DEAD more than twenty years ago, when he also had the marvelously expressive Bruce Campbell to anchor the supernatural evil in some sort of relatable reality, instead of wimpy BOY MEETS WORLD castoff Rider Strong. On their way to the cabin, the five encounter several eccentric and possibly racist backwoods types at the general store, including blond-maned wolf boy Dennis, whose passion for pancakes is matched only by his tendency to bite strangers (the influence of David Lynch, for whom Roth worked). The other influences are there too: DELIVERANCE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE THING. CABIN FEVER feels as though Roth had a checklist of his favorite horror movies with him on the set and crossed off each title as he ripped off…uh, that is, paid homage to…it.

In so doing, Roth created perhaps the most unlikable cast in recent horror history. Our five protagonists include virginal Paul (Strong), who has a crush on chaste cocktease Karen (Jordan Ladd, Cheryl’s lookalike daughter); sex-crazed couple Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent); and gun-toting, beer-swigging lunk Bert (James DeBello). Each character acts exactly as you would expect them to act, given that their antecedents lie in so many other past horror movies with a teen slant. Why couldn’t the blonde Ladd play the horny girl and the brunette Vincent the virgin? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to make the slight Strong an obnoxious lout and the hulking DeBello the “sensitive one?”

Of course, this would require imagination, a trait decidedly lacking in Roth’s approach to material older than most of his cast. When I originally read Roth’s claims that CABIN FEVER was as much a comedy as a horror film, I anticipated he would be somehow satirizing in SCREAM-like fashion horror-movie clich├ęs. If he is, it’s the most subtle application of satire I’ve ever seen because I couldn’t find it. And I looked. Brother, did I look.

On their first night at the cabin, the youths are assaulted by a stranger covered in blood, the victim of a flesh-eating virus contaminating the forest. They chase the poor guy away, but his infectious influence remains behind. Which of the five will get sick next? How will the others react? If you’re guessing “sensitively,” “intelligently,” or “logically,” you must go directly to Movie Jail and forfeit 200 Junior Mints.

Let’s give the devilish Roth his due and acknowledge what CABIN FEVER does right. Scott Kevan’s cinematography is crisper than this low-budget movie probably deserves, imbuing the forest’s brown richness with a foreboding beauty. Nathan Barr, with the assistance of Lynch maestro Angelo Badalamente, provides a brooding musical soundscape punctuated by ominous fly-buzzing. The gooey makeup effects by KNB are suitably gruesome. And Giuseppe Andrews as a party-loving deputy contributes one of the funniest supporting performances of the year.

But it’s what Roth does wrong that sinks the picture. Even setting aside the massive plot holes that plague the ending (like why aren‘t more people affected by the virus?), it’s pretty clear that whatever ideas Roth had evaporate an hour or so into the picture, as he piles on one superfluous climax after another, presumably figuring that one will finally wrap things up in a suitably ironic fashion. Oh, and speaking of that. The final “twist” proves that Roth watches more than just horror movies. He has also seen DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY.

1 comment:

Craig Edwards said...

Bless your heart! I felt the same way about this one. I was actually running a bookstore in High Point NC after ten years in the filmmaking industry in Wilmington NC - and I was very surprised to see two stuntment friends from my film days wander into my bookstore. We chatted, and I learned they were working on "some crappy horror flick out in the woods." It was, of course, Cabin Fever. Months later, hearing tales of people fainting at festival screenings, I plunged in to an opening weekend viewing. WTH? Like you I found much to feel meh about and little to love. They actually shot the second movie here in Wilmington, but tussled over the editing and the movie sat on the shelf for a couple of years. The second one worked better for me - as it actually got as nasty as the first one was supposed to have.