What we have in CABIN FEVER is the classic tale of city kids out in the deep dark woods with all the attendant mischief that that sort of thing engenders. The saving grace is that these kids are not outstandingly stupid, say, like the Blair Witch kids. You know, the ones that kept crossing and re-crossing the same stream as they got more and more lost instead of following said channel downstream and into the relatively safe arms of civilization.
But I digress.
Where CABIN FEVER goes wrong is in its lack of character development. Our kids are pretty much interchangeable except for the doofus , Bert (James DeBello). There is always a doofus and he’s there to make the other kids look good by comparison and to make the audience feel superior. The other four are good looking boys and girls of the vanilla variety, two of each. Jeff and Marcy (Joey Kern and Cerina Vincent) are a serious couple, hence their instantaneous coupling as soon as they arrive at the secluded cabin. The other two, Paul and Karen (Rider Strong and Jordan Ladd), have been pals since before puberty and are going through a will-we or won’t-we phase in their relationship, as in serious couplings of both varieties. They’re none of them particularly witty, quirky, or intrinsically interesting except for a nice aura of sweetness that pervades Stong’s Paul. As for DeBello, he’s just goofy enough to take the edge off being completely irritating, and just slow enough to make you believe that the squirrel he’s trying to shoot really can outthink him.
But none of that matters when the fun begins, as in the crazed hermit that Bert winged instead of the squirrel and who shows up at the cabin door asking for help and oozing blood from every pore. Our hermit, it seems, has a flesh-eating virus and the kids, reacting is a way that can only be described as well-tempered panic, shoo him away with extreme prejudice. Unfortunately, the shooing results in the hermit becoming toast, literally, and Bert shooting their truck dead. With our kids stranded, scared, and miles from anywhere that their cell phones will work, the film then becomes a study in human nature, as in, patrolling for help in the ominously deserted countryside, waiting to see who will get sick next, and how the rest of them react when someone starts sweating blood. Hint, hint, not well
Director/ co-writer (with Randy Pearlstein) Eli Roth was obviously much taken by those independent horror films from the 1970s. The low-budget creep fests where it was the mood rather than the chintzy special effects that created cult followings. The film has a much more polished look than the films to which it pays homage, though. There is in the golden leaves of autumn and the russet sunsets a peacefulness that is the perfect juxtaposition to the danger that lurks in the middle of nowhere, where the locals seems menacing even when they’re offering to help. Maybe it’s the way they go from gutting a squealing pig (on camera) to smiling a warm welcome with the pig blood still dripping from the pig and from the slaughterer’s face. Nothing quite sums up the difference between town and country.
Roth has also got a nice handle on how ordinary people can react badly to a crisis, sometimes with a wry humor that is unintended on their part but not on Roth’s. He’s also got a lovely way with externalizing the double-helix that so entwines sex and death in the psyche. When Paul finally makes his move on Karen, the joke’s on him with imagery that resonates all the way back to Orphic rituals and a genuine jolt for us in the audience when we realize just what those sound effects really were.
CABIN FEVER is a film that is neither dreadful nor a masterpiece. It takes itself just seriously enough to deliver genuine creeps along with the occasional crass shots of animal eviscerations and virus-ravaged flesh. It’s an old-fashioned film, not without its flaws, but done well enough to make you want to stay out of the woods for a while.