Those are qualities one can’t help but detect in both “Hostel” and “The Green Inferno,” two of the most well-made gorefests of recent memory (I gave the former a positive review, admittedly because it carried a plausible political subtext). But those underlying sensibilities weren’t always the tipping point of Roth’s values, otherwise his debut “Cabin Fever” would never have gained the footing it now holds. Years after it came and went in a flurry of commentary, it seems to act as a divisive moment between opposing tones of horror movies, and a relentless symbol of the director’s unfiltered panache for the macabre. Observing it in hindsight of what was to come, however, one can almost detect the distortion in his conviction: totally irreverent and bizarre, the movie plays like a seizure of the most influential formulas of the genre, all used for the sake of indulging their creator in one of the most relentless laughs he is ever likely to experience.
Sometimes, to our befuddlement, we even laugh with him. Consider a scene when the goofball character (James DeBello) rushes back into town for help after his friends (and him) have been afflicted with a gross flesh-eating virus. When he returns to the local convenience store, an eccentric boy seated on a porch swing out front launches into a bizarre attack that is shot implicitly in the style of cheesy kung-Fu: with strange musical chords (shrill rather than threatening) overlaying slow-motion gestures. So strange is the moment that there is but one response: that of startled laughter. But by then it’s hardly a fresh sensation for the viewer, who has already experienced the likes of panicked sex, embarrassing advances, disastrous confrontations with sick strangers and even a serious discussion about abandoning others in order to go get intoxicated in a cave. And that only concerns the unfortunate teenage characters, all of whom are destined for the most infuriating of horror movie conflicts: becoming victims in a world where common townsfolk are destined to be more like vultures than rescuers.
The first scenes contain all the familiar cues of the dead teenager formula. A truck of five arrives at a stop where the locals – southern rednecks – act as silent warnings against the trajectory of their plans, which involve teenagers from the city renting a cabin in the nearby woods to drink and party while sexual tension flares up their untethered hormones. It is the most overused of formulas in the genre, but Roth shamelessly knows this, and his characters are not exactly destined for the most conventional of fates. Late one night after they have made their descent, a stranger in the woods wanders nearby. Bert (James DeBello), the token partier, shoots him in a moment of panic; later, said man shows up at the cabin’s door begging for shelter, apparently suffering from some sort of virus that is eating away at his skin. The teenagers reject him out of fear of contagion. Shout-outs ensue. There is a rather convoluted sequence in which he attempts to steal their truck and then winds up being set on fire in the process, and the script cleverly emphasizes the lunacy of the moment in order to detract from the conventional twist that is to follow: the hermit, fully infected, will collapse and fall to his death in a nearby river, which feeds the water supply of those in the cabin.
Karen (Jordan Ladd), the pretty blond, is the first to become sick. Her school crush Paul (Rider Strong), quietly hoping to get to first base with her after so many years of a platonic friendship, discovers her infection during an intimate moment that is beyond disgusting. Then the others, fearing for their safety, do something as audacious as it is inconsiderate: they lock their friend up in a shed behind the cabin, hoping that her infection will, I guess, be unable to spread to the rest of them. Meanwhile, a pot-head police deputy wanders into the woods in order to address noise complaints from the locals; when Paul tells him they need a mechanic in order to repair their truck from the previous night’s incident, he swears to have someone sent back the following morning (though is more interested in partying with the teenagers). A cluster of other unfortunate circumstances befall the young victims in their isolation, and just when the occasion comes for one of them to actually reach civilization for help, other obstacles undermine their path of escape: rabid dogs, spreading infections, abandonment and the gradual realization that the locals, as dumb as rocks, have no interest in helping them if it means exposing themselves to a deadly disease in the process.
To read this premise is to assume that its trajectory mirrors the bleak nature of the director’s latter endeavors, but “Cabin Fever” does, in fact, have a surprisingly cheerful spirit. In contemplation of its varying scenes – whether they are chaotic or zany – we detect a tone that senses the fun that goes into making a silly horror film, especially one that isn’t afraid to take a few jabs at itself when the dialogue or the situations put characters into familiar corners. Those who might be ambivalent of Roth’s personality might not have agreed, but there’s a clever ruse buried in the film just in case: a scene in which a stoner (played by the director himself) wanders into the teenage campfire and lightens the mood further with morbid comedy. Many of us laugh, sometimes uncomfortably, when there are moments of violence that escalate into absurd disasters, but those impulses come from a personal space of experience rather than the movie’s own orchestration. Towards the end is a moment so funny that the laughs spill over into the closing credits, perhaps to remind us that even when tragedy is meant to follow the young and innocent, there is humor in the idea that anyone can take it all too seriously.
Why did Roth, a relatively talented man, abandon that reasoning so early on in his promising career? What took him through the route of moral devastation when it came to viewing horror through such hopeless and murky lenses? The contrast is only underlined further by the distinctiveness of the productions; as he has progressed further into the shadows, his sense of skill has swelled well beyond the mere notion of a clever amateur holding onto the tripod. In many ways, one cannot fault how precise and focus the latter films are. But they don’t have the same sort of repeatability, perhaps, because their themes weigh down on you like anchors of dread. It isn’t fun to be scared when you are always questioning how far the limits have to be tested. But all passionate artists must, for better or worse, rise and evolve from the meek origins of their early – and usually frivolous – productions. There is no question that “Cabin Fever” is the exhibition of a man who had much to prove in the genre he loves, but all the same it maintains a certain stubbornness of conviction, like an old joke a good friend enjoys retelling because he knows you will keep finding it funny.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror/Comedy (US); 2002; Rated R; Running Time: 93 Minutes
Rider Strong: Paul
Jordan Ladd: Karen
James DeBello: Bert
Cerina Vincent: Marcy
Joey Kern: Jeff
Arie Verveen: The Hermit
Robert Harris: Old Man Cadwell
Eli Roth: Justin
Produced by Evan Astrowsky, Sam Forelich, Jeffrey D. Hoffman, Susan Jackson, Lauren Moews and Eli Roth; Directed and written by Eli Roth