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Cabin Fever   B+

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Randy Pearlstein, Eli Roth
Cast: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, Joey Kern, Cerina Vincent, James DeBello, Arie Verveen, Giuseppe Andrews.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Co-written and directed by first-timer Eli Roth, Cabin Fever is a fun and freakishly gruesome backwoods horror romp that stirs up fond memories of everything from Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Evil Dead and Last House on the Left. Like Wrong Turn and House of 1000 Corpses, it's a deliberate nostalgia trip to the down-and-dirty horror of the '70s and early '80s. Unlike its two predecessors from earlier this year, it reaches just far enough beyond the films to which it's paying homage to come into its own. It begins with five college kids setting out for a weekend of partying in a cabin in the woods. Lovers Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent) waste no time ripping off each others' clothes, while nice guy Paul (Rider Strong) tries to tell his lifelong pal Karen (Jordan Ladd) that he wants to be more than just friends, and drunken frat-boy Bert (James DeBello) goes off to shoot squirrels ("Because they're gay!"). By the next morning, however, their idyllic weekend will be ruined as they find themselves fending off a deadly flesh-eating virus -- not to mention the crazy hillbilly locals religiously intent on containing the virus before it spreads.

Cabin Fever could easily be seen as an AIDS parable, but as social commentary it's too sketchy for its own good. It's easier to appreciate the film for its surface charms: the requisite brutal violence and gore, a dash of premarital sex and nudity (courtesy of the beautiful Cerina Vincent), and a quirky, absurdist sense of humor that brings to mind Roth's quasi-mentor, David Lynch. In one scene, a boy sitting outside the local convenience store shouts "Pancakes!" at befuddled frat-boy Bert, then proceeds to execute some unbelievable kung-fu moves (in slow-motion) before viciously biting Bert's hand. Say what? Exactly. The humor is an acquired taste for sure and often goes overboard, but it's what gives Cabin Fever an oddball flavor that makes it more than just another old-school horror tribute. Also refreshing is the questionable morality of its heroes. In one quietly disturbing scene, nice-guy protagonist Paul tenderly violates Karen in her sleep. While the film is never truly scary, Roth is skilled at building tension and inspiring revulsion. The sequence with Vincent shaving her legs, only to have chunks of flesh stripped away to reveal the festering open sores caused by the virus, is as squirm-inducing as any horror-movie moment in recent memory. It's a shame that the film never really takes off the way it clearly wants to. Instead of building to a knockout climax, the film slowly runs out of gas and comes to a sloppy, sputtering stop, only to deliver an astoundingly stupid final joke right before the credits roll. That said, it's a hell of a ride most of the way. Cabin Fever's enthusiasm is wildly infectious.

Review published 09.17.2003.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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