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Old 06-12-2004, 11:39 PM
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Default Cabin Fever




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: January 17, 2004

Released by: Lions Gates
Release date: 1/30/2004
MSRP: $19.99
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes



Scream's smashing success in the mid-90's revived the horror genre from the box office doldrums it had been in throughout most of the decade. What it also did however, was usher in the new self-referential trend of horror, where everyone would wink and acknowledge that they were consciously part of a horror film. Fans got winked out, and a concept that seemed like a godsend in the mid-90's quickly turned stale and nearly ruined the genre it years before helped revive.

At the time of Scream's success, a budding talent by the name of Eli Roth was pitching a little genre work called Cabin Fever. His work was very aware of the splatter films past, but without the irony of the Scream line of films. Studios were not ready for a horror film to take itself seriously in 1996, and thus Roth was left without financers. Studios and audiences were ready in 2002 though, as Cabin Fever made quite the indie splash at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then months later in theatres. This is a film that has split audiences into two camps, making both top ten best and worst lists of 2003. Now that the hype has died down and Lions Gate has released it on a special features laden special edition DVD, is Cabin Fever a virus worth catching?

The Story

inline Image The film begins on a white background that slowly turns red to the sound of flies and other oft-putting ambience. The theme here is decay, one which will play a major part in the film as it progresses. Scenic shots then follow, starting off beautiful but quickly becoming haunting as the endless stocks of trees invade Roth's muted color palette. The camera then rests on the shot of a dog, lying motionless with bits of blood dripping off its coat. An old hermit (Arie Verveen) offers the dog an animal treat, but the dog does not respond. The hermit moves in and slowly lifts the dog's leg, and a quick burst of blood projects itself on his face. He has been infected with a virus, and that is only the beginning.


inline Image The film immediately cuts to some generic university, where a bunch of students celebrate their graduation (apparently in the US they graduate in fall). What better to celebrate years of education than heading off to a desolate cabin and losing brain cells by excessive drinking? As the gang settles in around the campfire to tell scary stories one story happens upon them, as the infected hermit comes to ask for help. Being selfish and fearful of contracting disease, they lock him out of the cabin and eventually chase him away. This altercation concludes with one of the best deadpan lines ever: "That guy asked for our help. We lit him on fire!"

inline Image The hermit is long gone, but traces of the virus remain, and it is only a matter of time before these sinning twentysomethings get what is coming to them. Questions of trust, coping with the inevitability of death and the fear of the unknown ensue, all in particularly nihilistic fashion. Thrown in to jazz things up are sub-plots about a partying police officer, a seemingly racist bunch of backwoods hicks, and a little scene that could be called nothing else but "pancakes."

inline Image Cabin Fever is a film very much aware of classic horror films past, sheathed in homage to some of the best and most influential horror films of the past 30 years. Steadicam shots in a bleached-white hospital and a man in a bunny suit signal The Shining, a tracking ass shot and interplay between young and old age groups come right out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, David Hess's classic songs like "Road to Nowhere" are right out of The Last House on the Left, the cabin and mechanical deer elicit Evil Dead 2, and most influential of all is the excessive bodily gore, the social dynamics of dealing with disease and the paranoia of an unseen killer that strongly reference John Carpenter's seminal remake, The Thing. Director Eli Roth knows his contemporary film history, and his love for horror films ends up being both the film's virtue and its vice.

inline Image Roth's horror is a new kind of horror, fully conscious of all the horror influences before it, but instead of shallowly parodying them like the Scream films, it many times uses these references to help comment on his own story. He transcends the material, creating a new kind of meaning both for his film and the film that he has referenced. The way he handles the references to The Thing are arguably the most interesting in the film. Carpenter's The Thing came out in 1982, right when AIDS hysteria was beginning to surface in culture. AIDS was commonly associated with homosexuality, and Carpenter's film subconsciously dealt with that paranoia by having the all-male outpost deal with the transfusion of blood and the faceless nature of the disease.

inline Image Cabin Fever brings the comparison between the fear of homosexuality and AIDS explicitly by sheathing his film with the word "gay", particularly amongst the main characters. The sexuality of many of the characters is questioned earlier on, just as the questions of their disease are questioned later. Although the stigma of AIDS and homosexuality being linked together has subsided over the years, this film can easily been seen as a 1982 film, because Roth cleverly avoids including anything that would date his film at all. It exists in a timeless void, able to borrow from whatever film it wishes as if it was released day and date with Cabin Fever.

inline Image What Roth also changes from The Thing is the element of mystery. The Thing based most of its story on making the viewer guess who actually was infected. Cabin Fever avoids doing this, and instead always lets the viewer know who has it and who doesn't, giving the film a constant irony. The change also allows Cabin Fever to focus on the personalities and interactions of the main characters as they question who is infected and who isn't. The viewer has the upper hand, knowing the outcome and watching how these characters cope with it. Like Craven movies like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, questions about civility are raised, as these people end up acting with brutality as they try to protect themselves. Roth underlines this animalistic behaviour by comparing the actions of the cabin-bound characters to those of a snarling dog.

inline Image What Roth effectively does is comment upon the splatter genre of 80's horror, zeroing in on topics that many of the 80's films only introduced. Early 80's films, especially those by Cronenberg and Carpenter, dealt with the vulnerability of the human body, and how blood becomes this destructive and harmful entity. That theme is often at the centre of Roth's film, as he probes the ideas of annihilation in interesting ways. Roth represents a new generation of filmmaker, ready to take the reigns from Carpenter and Craven (like they did from Hitchcock and Hawks) and create a new brand of horror film. This is how the new horror film should be, conscious of the genre but ready to deal with it honestly and take it in new directions.

Unfortunately, Roth takes this film in WAY too many new directions, losing much of his original focus by the film's end. Unable to focus his love for horror films on a select batch of works, he instead tries to cram his film with endless references that end up derailing it severely. He mentions in his commentary how his Deputy Winston character and his need to party is to comment on how movies like Phantasm always have these terrible parties going on within. This rather large sub-plot goes absolutely nowhere, and is often embarrassing in its amateur childishness. Visuals for a campfire story are of a style of its own, and upset the desaturated coloring of the rest of the film. In Roth's attempt to comment on backwoods stereotyping in films like Texas Chainsaw and The Hills Have Eyes, he places a horribly choreographed and tasteless "nigger" joke. The punch line concludes the film, and is so out of place, removing any remaining focus the film had on dealing with disease.

The "nigger" joke is only part of the problem however, as the end of the film is just a mess. Up until the final act, the main characters are developed and handled well by Roth, but then all motivations are thrown out the window in the end, as the characters act without common sense towards the end. Rider Strong's character is particularly false, as he goes from being quiet and caring into the massive serial murderer, brutally killing nearly everyone in sight. What? Not only is his character completely incomprehensible by the end, but the film also abandons his story completely, leaving his death totally unaccounted for. Roth abandons everything he set up so skillfully in the first two acts by throwing in the kitchen sink to his ending, with jokes, kung fu and banjo playing taking precedence over social relationships and coping with disease.

When Cabin Fever falls apart it is a real shame, because it begins with such promise and attempts to do something new with a tired genre. This is the kind of post-modern horror film the modern horror genre needs to model itself upon. A film sheathed in homage, but without the self-referential irony of the Scream films, Cabin Fever is a brave step in a new direction for horror films. Unfortunately, Eli Roth is too smart for his own good, and his attempt to include too much ultimately collapses the film upon itself in the final act. It is a valiant effort, certainly not as safe as other modern genre fare like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake or Freddy vs. Jason, but it is just too ambitious for its own good.

Image Quality

Eli Roth wanted this film to look as if it were from the 70's, and thus the transfer has a grainy haze with a muted color palette. Considering its independent roots though, this transfer looks very sharp. The day scenes are very clear and detailed and could compare in quality to some Hollywood fare of today. The night scenes suffer however, from poor contrast (particularly in the cave scenes) and a lack of depth. Some of the night blacks look far more like dark grays. Overall though, this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks quite good. The film was shot in Super 35, so part of the grain can be attributed to the film process itself, rather than the transfer.

Sound

Cabin Fever has an immaculate sound design. Marc Meyer's sound effects are just perfect, from the buzzing flies at the start to some of the disturbing gore splattering sounds. Two scenes capture sounds so unsettling that they disturb much more than the visuals: the shaving scene and the "finger bang misfire". The music is also a great fusion of Manfredini-esque instrumentals as well as the surreal tunes by Lynch stalwart, Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti's "Red Dawn" tune during the finger bang is so angelic yet so disturbed all at once, it is quite beautiful.

Thanks to the great sound design of the film, it is no surprise that this Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds very solid. Other than a few directional effects where Rider Strong is running though the woods, the back speakers remain reserved for musical effects. They could have been utilized more effectively, but when the surrounds are used they work very well. The audio is very crisp and all the morbid sounds from Meyer's catalogue sound as if they are happening right in your living room. Lions Gate has done a good job with this mix, especially considering the film is just a small little million dollar indie pic.

Supplemental Material

inline Image Five commentaries. Yes, you read that right, the highlight of this disc are the included five commentaries which are all narrated by Eli Roth. Basically, the tracks are summarized like this: The first is Roth only, the second are the girls, the third are the guys, the fourth are various filmmakers, and the last is Rider Strong because he apparently can't shut up. I was very dubious going into this monster commentary session, expecting much overlap and several gaps and pauses between comments, but boy was I wrong. Eli Roth sure can hold a commentary, and I was amazed that after four straight commentaries, I was ready for the final one because I really couldn't stop listening.

Roth clearly has a set agenda of questions to ask, but everything comes off the cuff, him just having a nice conversation with all those involved. He is very un-PC (like the film itself) and speaks as if he were a good friend. Roth does a great job in probing those in the commentaries with revealing questions about the production and the participants themselves. And when the participants are done talking, he finds other people to communicate with, from spontaneous phone conversations with his parents and even his heavily accented film professor. It is amazing that even after 7 and a half hours of commentaries, it never gets stale.

The rest of the supplements seem weak by comparison, but there are a few good ones of note. There is a 30 minute behind the scenes feature, and it details several aspects of the production and is filled with on-the-set footage. While it can seem a little on the promotional side at times, it does have several worthwhile parts, like Roth asking his parent's if they think he is crazy for making horror films, and some great gore preparation footage. There is also a fun bit about the original dog used named "Jake," who was far from scary.





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Continuing Roth's preoccupation with decay, three short stop motion films are included, featuring a band called "The Rotten Fruit". The three shorts are actually quite funny, and run about 10 minutes long. The best is a Napster parody ("Snackster") where the artist fruit get their revenge on all those downloaders. A short "Pancakes" feature is included, basically with that mullet kid doing an impressive karate number. Trailers can be found by highlighting the Lions Gate logo on the main menu, and they are for Cabin Fever, The Job, and the terrible-looking Serial Killing 101. A "chick vision" feature is included, which basically uses the subtitle track to place hands over the screen at random parts for all those too afraid to watch. If that is still too shocking for you, a 1 minute "family version" is included, and it has a hilarious introduction by Eli Roth.

Final Thoughts

Cabin Fever is an ambitious genre work that in many ways builds on themes from past horror films like The Thing and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The movie is too smart for its own good though, trying to cover too much horror ground and ultimately falling apart in the final act. The image and sound are both very good, and the supplements will keep you busy for hours. The five commentaries are all very good listens, which is quite amazing. Cabin Fever is a flawed film, but the DVD is solid on all levels. Catch it!

Rating

Movie - B
Image Quality - B+
Sound - A-
Supplements - A-

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0
  • English, Spanish subtitles
Supplements
  • Five commentaries all moderated by Director Eli Roth
  • Behind-the-scenes documentary
  • Trailers
  • "Chick vision" viewing option
  • Family version parody
  • "The Rotten Fruit" shorts
  • "Pancakes" karate demo

 

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Old 06-14-2004, 02:38 PM
I 'caught the fever' last weekend and found your review a really enjoyable read, rhett. I have to disagree on your comments about the third act though. It seems that the majority of the people (even the folks who liked the film) have a problem with the last reel of 'Cabin fever'. I liked the characters arcs, especially Rider Strong's. He begins as such a gentle lad, the 'voice of reason' kinda guy, with his everlasting crush on the Jordan Ladd character. Then the self-preservation mode kicks in with him not only allowing to lock her up in the shed, but even participating in doing so. Then the 'we are screwed anyway' mode sets in and he just has unprotected sex with another girl. Maybe the virus infected their brains as well. Even if that was not the case, I could understand, believe and maybe even respect the veineer of human dignity being peeled off during this extreme situation and making place for a more feral attitude where forgetting the girl you love, having gratuitous sex with the now available girl and just start killing that stupid officer who should have helped ya (and everyone in sight who tries to stop you) doesn't seem like a 'bad idea'. This character already crossed his own line, his point-of-no-return and lost all self-esteem the moment he locked up the girl he loved. In comparison the things he did after that didn't seem half-bad to him. Maybe everything he did after locking up Ladd was a sad attempt to convince himself he IS crazy so he could come to terms with locking up Jordan Ladd.
And as far as the final moments are concerned: most people in town weren't aware of what was going on in the woods and while they play their banjo music, drink their 'tasty lemonade' and try to be hip with 'the niggers', we see this beautiful, lyrical and sort of peaceful shot of Rider Stronmg lying dead on the shore of the lake. It is the juxtaposition between the 'business as usual' of the town's everyday life and the viewer knowing more than they do (emphasized by the shot of the dead Rider Strong) that is cringe-inducing and, for my money, tops off the movie in the best way possible.
 
 

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