- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

First-time writer/director Eli Roth’s debut film, “Cabin Fever,” bears all the markings of a B-level horror flick, down to its cheesy title.

Then, the first reel promises something more. Perhaps the young director can take a genre subject and make it matter?

Soon enough, however, the film shows its true colors — it really is no more than a B-level horror flick, angling for a place alongside the likes of 1981’s “Evil Dead” and 1977’s “The Hills Have Eyes.”

“Cabin Fever” plays upon our very real fears of flesh-eating viruses but succumbs to the same horror conventions it wants to explode.

We join five college graduates as they head into a remote cabin to celebrate the end of their college careers. Cue the marijuana and beer references, as well as the stock characters.

Shy Paul (Rider Strong) has been pining for gorgeous Karen (Jordan Ladd) for years, and the cabin getaway is his chance to shine.

Group knucklehead Bert (James DeBello) wanders off to hunt, only to meet a bloody stranger begging for help. Inexplicably, Bert runs off and tells no one of the incident. Why? So the rest of his pals can be shocked when the man reappears later that night, of course.

His return is met by more horror and indifference. Are twentysomethings really this apathetic? The dying man proceeds to spray blood all over the campsite during his death throes.

One by one, the graduates begin showing signs of the same flesh-eating virus that rendered the man a bloody shell.

The virus isn’t the only scourge facing the quintet. Some stereotypical hillbillies are on their tail, as well as a dim officer who wants to party more than enforce the law.

Rarely are modern horror movies created from a single vision, so Mr. Roth’s triple duty as director, co-writer and producer was a good omen.

So, too, were the early scenes that offer tart dialogue delivered by a talented cast.

Unfortunately, smugness eventually permeates “Cabin Fever,” the kind that Mr. Roth hopefully will shed as he matures. The would-be auteur is a little too proud of his cleverness and technique.

Why else would he display each new bit of exposed rotting flesh as if each time it were a fresh shock worthy of Alfred Hitchcock?

Another factor working against “Fever’s” horror pitch is that the college grads don’t appear particularly close. When the virus strikes, they barely seem like associates, let alone the kind of pals who would be devastated to watch each other wither away.

The film has too much easy fun at the expense of its ancillary characters, all played for nonsensical laughs. The locals are a collection of gun-toting, God-fearing freaks right out of central casting.

“Cabin Fever” does root under our skin. Sitting through “Cabin Fever” is like listening to a campfire ghost story, even if the teller isn’t the most skilled at spinning a yarn.

No monsters prowl the leafy vistas in “Cabin Fever” save the monster within us, hardly a profound message and one better horror films like this year’s “28 Days Later” deliver with more of a jolt.

Mr. Roth, a protege of director David Lynch, might have some genuine frights still up his sleeve. “Cabin Fever’s” biggest horror is its squandered potential.

**

WHAT: “Cabin Fever”

RATING: R (Partial nudity, blood-soaked imagery, drug use, strong language)

CREDITS: Directed by Eli Roth. Written by Mr. Roth and Randy Pearlstein. Produced by Mr. Roth, Lauren Moews, Sam Froelich and Evan Astrowsky. Cinematography by Scott Kevan.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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