Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

If you missed it on the big screen, Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER has hit DVD courtesy of an impressive release from Lions Gate in the US. If you haven’t already seen the film you would have undoubtedly been enticed by blurbs from the likes of Peter Jackson who called it “An unrelenting, gruesomely funny blood bath”, and The New York Times who revelled in its “Potent blend of dread, gore and gallows humor”. So, is the film deserved of the hype?

The storyline concerns five post-teens who retreat to familiar cabin in the woods territory to host a private graduation party. Along the way they bump into various backwoods stereotypes; an old, white-bearded coot who runs the local supplies store and who keeps a gun especially for “the niggers”, an argumentative gas-pump attendant, a local police force for whom the term ‘shit-for-brains’ would be complimentary, a spaced-out hippy, a kung-fu kicking kid with a pancake obsession, and one man and his dog neither of whom would have the first clue on how to mow a meadow.

Once they’ve comfortably settled into their cabin, and partaken of drink, drugs, and sex, the group receive a knock at their door from the aforementioned dog owner (sans mutt) who has been struck down by some form of leprosy-like virus, that has covered him with lesions, and splattering flesh upon the cabin portal. The diseased man coughs up plentiful blood that he sprays over their car and is gunned down by one of the group for fear of infection (better to be tried for first degree murder, then?). Alas, it’s too late for the virus has already contaminated one of them (in case you haven’t seen the film, I won’t mention how), and is swiftly transferred from one member to the next in a series of gory set pieces that emulate classic death scenes from a plethora of horror classics.

Eli Roth waxes enthusiastically on the DVD commentary, citing the likes of Carpenter, Craven, Cronenberg, Raimi, and Romero in an endless list of fan-boyish on-screen tributes that are obvious to anyone with the barest knowledge of fright movies. The director goes so far to include three David Hess tracks from Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and commission a re-recording of the classic’s main theme “Wait for the Rain” by Hess’ offspring, Bo and Jesse.

As far as pacing is concerned, the movie is tight and the audience don’t have to wait long between shock sequences. Even when the gore set-pieces are done, Roth swiftly inserts a scene involving a comical interlude or sexual situation to maintain viewer suspense, and handles the sequences nicely so that the humour doesn’t dispel the feeling of impending doom that permeates the film throughout. Roth knows how to jar his audience with the classic combination of sex and horror and utilises this skill to good effect during a foreplay incident, and a bath-tub shaving sequence.

Another aspect of the script that works in the film’s favour is the ambiguous nature by which the disease is transferred between hosts. Several red herrings involving the outbreak’s source are hinted at throughout the film, which leaves the audience guessing as to who the virus will strike next, and how they will have become contaminated. What isn’t so great is Roth’s use of the clichéd “I’ve survived” scene, used so often in movies involving teens in peril, in which a protagonist has apparently survived a situation, jumps for joy and then meets his death. I can’t recall any film in which this blatant attempt at audience manipulation is so ineffectually handled. Equally disappointing is the characterisation, whilst the director is at pains to point out that he values audience sympathy, feeling that shocks are heightened when viewers feel for the plight of the victims. Alas, the script fails to reflect this as the protagonists are, without exception, dislikeable, and display an unprecedented amount of self-survival instinct to the detriment of their infected friends. Their narcissism is even more pronounced than that displayed by would-be survivalists in the likes of Carpenter’s THE THING, Cronenberg’s body politic horrors SHIVERS and RABID, and Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, all from which Roth borrows heavily, and which featured victims subjected to paranoia in claustrophobic surroundings whose terror is undoubtedly intensified by an altogether more malevolent assailant.

To be fair to Roth, he is adamant that CABIN FEVER is a “popcorn” movie and nothing more. The pretentiousness evident in other “fanboy” directorial debuts is missing here, with the production assimilating the likes of Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD 2 in terms of its enthusiastic combination of dark comedy and restrained gore accompanied by assured camerawork in atmospheric woodland locations.

Lions Gate’s USA region free release is a classy affair, and comes packaged within a holographic cased outer sleeve. Both the anamorphic widescreen transfer and sound are crisp, with the five (count ‘em) accompanying feature-length commentaries featuring a writer/director Roth on his own detailing the background of the movie in depth, others in which he teams up with actors Joey Kern, Jordan Ladd, and Rider Strong, and one in which producer Lauren Moews and director of photography Scott Kevan go through the technical side of the film more thoroughly.

Also on hand is a splendid documentary entitled “Cabin Fever: Beneath the Skin” (28m:55s) that shows some of KNB’s special effects work, details set design and minor production problems. Other extras include three witty, animated shorts by Roth involving a vulgar rock band comprised of various fruity members, a short video set to the sound of “Gay Bar” by Electric Six, entitled “Pancakes” in which the film’s weird martial arts kid Dennis (Mathew Helms) jumps, flips, and twirls a staff to fine effect, and a couple of not so useful extras that include a “Family Version” edit of CABIN FEVER that understandably lasts just over a minute and a “Chick” version that blocks out gory highlights with a pair of graphic hands.

Carl T. Ford

Directed by Eli Roth

English Language with optional English and Spanish subtitles
USA / 2003 / 92 minutes

5 x Audio Commentaries
"Cabin Fever: Beneath the Skin” Behind the Scenes Documentary
"Pancakes" video short featuring Mathew Helms
Three Animated Shorts: The Battle of the Bands (05m:27s), Snackster (03m:40s), Room Service (03m:18s)
Theatrical trailers “Cabin Fever”, “The Job”, and “Serial Killing 101”

“Chick Vision” and “Friendly Version” edits of the feature

A Lions Gate Films DVD Release All Region / NTSC / New Stereo Mix and Original Mono soundtrack / 1.33:1



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