Cabin Fever (2003) dir. Eli Roth
Starring: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent
You may remember Eli Roth’s debut film causing a stir at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002, when it started a bidding war with nine distributors. It was acquired by Lion’s Gate Films for a sum larger than its production budget ($1.5m) and eventually earn over $30million internationally.
It jump started Roth’s career as well as start a new strain of backpacker-horror films. After “Cabin Fever” came Roth’s “Hostel” films, “Touristas”, “Haute Tension”, “The Descent” etc etc. It’s a strong debut for Roth giving us great doses of gore and black humour though hampered by an unfocused second half and a lack of a clear antagonist.
Ironically, for a horror film director, Roth’s films actually aren’t all that scary. “Hostel” was a fantastic film, but not because it made you jump out of your seat. He creates a sense of dread using a slow build up of character and environmental developmemt. That’s the first time I’ve used that term – ‘environmental development’, but it’s relevant because setting is so important to Roth’s films. In “Cabin Fever”, it’s the hillbilly backwoods of rural America. In cinema terms, it’s the land of “Deliverance” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
The opening establishes a group of annoying college students on the road to a cabin to party. Their first stop at a gas station establishes them as unwanted foreigners in the area. They meet a racist convenience store owner as well as his inbred son who has a penchant for biting people. My first impression was that these hillbillies would soon stalk and kill the students. That turns out to be a red herring as it’s a toxic virus that infects the kids and drives them to madness and death.
The first half of the film, like “Hostel”, uses a simplistic approach to setting up the story –uncomplicated and likeable characters in a situation we can all relate to. Unfortunately Roth is unfocused in the second half. He can’t decide who the antagonists are - the locals, the cops, or the students themselves. Without clear a direction the film then becomes just a series of scenes. Though it gives us ample doses of gore it’s ultimately unsatisfying. The film could have ended several times; instead we get more unnecessary screen time with the cops’ search for the rapid teens and an unnecessary hospital sequence. Roth seems to be testing the waters of all his favourite horror films – “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Deliverance”, “The Hills Have Eyes” and “The Thing” – without deciding on one.
Roth would redo this formula with “Hostel” with far more satisfying results. In “Hostel” he remains focused, precise and clear about his metaphors. Consider "Cabin Fever" growing pains. Enjoy.