Cabin Fever Review
I'm probably the only reviewer under the sun who actually likes Cabin Fever. Despite the ample praise of David Lynch and Peter Jackson, the film has divided even the most hardcore fans of the horror genre, and the vast majority of reviewers seem to have slated it as mindless garbage. While it's difficult to disagree with the mindless part, I would strongly dispute its being garbage. Essentially, it plays out as a classic low-budget 1970s horror affair, featuring an attractive cast of dubious skill, ample profanity, blood and guts, and a thin plot that plays second fiddle to the carnage. It's an infectious, idiosyncratic and enjoyable mixture that worked in the 70s and it still works today.
Paul (Rider Strong - great name) tags along with a group of buddies who are off to spend some time in a cabin in the woods after graduating from college. On their first night in the cabin, the loud-mouthed gang are accosted by a homeless man with a hideous flesh-eating disease. One thing leads to another and they somehow manage to both kill him and trash their own car. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, they one by one begin to fall prey to the same disease and start to turn on each other.
Let's make one thing clear: this movie is trash. Whatever writer/producer/director Eli Roth's ambitions were, it cannot be anything more than a cheap B-movie that will be most enjoyable for viewers who are used to the best and worst of 70s horror. There's an old saying that you can't polish a turd, but that is exactly what Roth has done, and he seems to have at least partially succeeded. The look of the film is impressively bleak, with a muted colour scheme and excellent use of the widescreen frame. The score, by Nathan Barr and David Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti, has a quality and a mood that belies the decidedly low budget of the film.
The acting is here and there, neither good nor bad. None of the stars are particularly talented, but they do the best they can with the admittedly paper-thin personalities they are portraying, and manage to pull off a reasonably good turn, even if you end up cheering at the demise of many of them. In particular, Rider Strong has a charisma and appearance that makes you root for him, even if he isn't particularly talented. He comes across as the all-round nice guy in a bad situation, and he has a tough job to do, carrying the film as the sane guy when everyone else is collapsing around him. The rest of the cast do their best with their caricatured roles, but they inject enough energy into them to make them seem harmless. Apart from Rider Strong, the most talented of the ensemble seems to be the delicious Jordan Ladd, who is the only one of the troupe to put any hint of subtlety into her portrayal of cute girl Karen, resulting in hers being the only character to establish any real empathy with the audience. Don't get me wrong: no-one here is especially bad, but no-one is especially good either.
The way Roth has structured and paced the film is actually quite laudable. In an age when screenwriters are being urged to begin the main storyline immediately and forego any setup, Roth takes his time to establish the mood and the characters before going all-out with the horror. Theoretically, this should result in the audience bonding more with the characters, but because everyone, apart from Paul and Karen, is a self-centred asshole, it doesn't really have the desired effect. It does set up a great mood, though, with a palpable feeling of dread that gradually creeps up on you. The film also makes quite good use of its obvious AIDS metaphor: both the disease and the reactions of the characters are intended to mirror its spread and effect on society in the 80s.
One other aspect of the movie that a lot of people have criticized is its humour. Eli Roth has a bizarre and often twisted sense of humour, best demonstrated by his previous efforts, the claymation shorts The Rotten Fruit (some of which are included on this DVD). While some people either don't find it funny or consider it ill-placed in a movie of this kind, I personally find it hilarious. Some outstanding gags include a bizarre sex scene in which Marcy (Cerina Vincent) rams her finger up Jeff's (Joey Kern) backside, much to his delight, and a highly amusing and quite satisfying riff on an elderly southerner's use of the word "nigger", which begins during the opening moments and actually serves as the film's punchline. The comedy on display here may not be to everyone's tastes, but if you have a slightly offbeat sense of humour you'll be in for a good time.
No trashy horror movie is complete without copious amounts of blood, and gore fiends are in for a real treat, with plenty of the red stuff thrown our way thanks to KNB EFX, the same crew responsible for the delightfully over the top carnage of Kill Bill. It's not always completely believable (in fact, there are some hilarious moments with terrible make-up effects), but by and large it works. It's actually quite horrifying to see the initially beautiful Karen gradually deteriorating into a living mass of blood and bones, helped by the fact that Roth wisely avoids prolonging the exposure of the more gory elements. One particularly excruciating moment is the infamous leg-shaving scene, where Marcy scrapes shaving cream from her legs, ripping off layers of skin in the process.
At the end of the day, Cabin Fever is far from a masterpiece. In fact, many of the negative things you have probably heard about it are true. However, I feel that a lot of critics have exaggerated the extent to which the bad elements outweigh the good. For me, Cabin Fever is an enjoyable but silly movie that does a much better job of evoking the style of 1970s horror than the likes of the more critically acclaimed Wrong Turn.
The film is transferred in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The framing appears to be mostly accurate, although I get the impression that there is perhaps some cropping at the top of the screen, since a number of the opening credits seem a bit too cramped at the top yet quite spacious at the bottom.
The overall look of the DVD is quite pleasing, although it doesn't have the kind of levels of detail and grain I would have liked. It's a bit too soft, but there is mercifully little edge enhancement. On one of the commentaries, Roth points out that he purposefully made the film get progressively grainier as time elapsed, but a lot of this appears to have been filtered in the transfer, meaning that on DVD the effect is not particularly noticeable. The colours start out looking overly saturated, but as they become progressively duller as the film progresses, this seems to have been intentional. Despite the number of features crammed on to a single disc, there are no obvious compression artefacts.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is ample if not particularly outstanding. The dialogue is always clear, and the fullness of the mix makes for an impressively eneveloping mix (even if it doesn't sound much like the audio of a low budget 70s horror movie). The bass is strong, and the surrounds are used sparingly but to good effect.
The menus are nicely done, with 5.1 audio and atmospheric artwork. The transitions are, as usual, a little over-long, but they're not ridiculously lengthy.
Cabin Fever is available in two separate packages, but in truth the only difference is that the so-called "limited edition" has a holographic slip case to house the same standard amaray case used for the regular edition. The front cover artwork is actually pretty good and has a nifty optical illusion on the holographic version.
The only thing included inside the alpha case (besides the disc, of course) is a catalogue for other Lions Gate releases. A list of chapter stops would have been nice, although admittedly not essential.
First up are five (yes, five) audio commentaries. Every one of these features writer/producer/director Eli Roth in some capacity. Although I was initially a little sceptical as to whether or not he could find sufficient material to cover five feature-length tracks, I actually ended up listening to them all and not becoming bored.
Director's commentary - Roth handles the first track alone. He starts talking during the very first scene and doesn't stop till the credits are rolling. He quite clearly has verbal diarrhoea with a vengeance, yet he never repeats information and remains informative throughout. The first half or so of the track is a general overview of his opinions of filmmaking, the horror genre, how he got into the business and how he got Cabin Fever sold. Eventually the track becomes a little more screen-specific, but on the whole this is not the kind of track that requires the viewer to remain glued to the screen while listening to it.
Commentary with the girls - On this track, Roth is joined by Jordan Ladd (Karen) and Cerina Vincent (Marcy). This track takes the form of an informal chat with each of the girls, with Roth supplying questions and comments of his own. Essentially, the comments are delivered in 10-minute segments, so the two are intercut despite clearly being recorded separately. Once he's finished quizzing (and flirting with) the two girls, Roth telephones his parents and asks them their opinions on the movie. His father is a psychologist, and it's quite interesting to hear his explanation for why Roth makes violent films.
Commentary with the guys - In this laidback commentary, Roth teams up with actors Joey Kern and James DeBello. DeBello comes in late, but unlike the commentary with the girls, all three speakers are clearly in the same room at the same time.. There's a bit of butt-kissing and a bit of meandering, but overall the commentary is reasonably fun to listen to.
Commentary with the filmmakers - This commentary features Roth, producer Lauren Moews and director of photography Scott Kevan. This is unsurprisingly the most technical of the tracks, discussing aspects such as the creation of the title sequence, the various film stocks and different types of negative processing used, and all sorts of elements that are sure to please those of us with an interest in the actual filmmaking process itself. As usual, Roth leads the track, often acting as a moderator of sorts, presenting questions to the other two speakers.
Commentary with Rider Strong - Given a commentary track because he apparently "wouldn't shut up", Rider Strong joins Eli Roth for the final commentary, and the two are genuinely as bad as each other. They talk about everything and nothing at breakneck speed, and both have the habit of making elements of the film out to be more important or masterful than they are. That said, Strong actually has a number of insightful comments to make, especially about the intended effect on audiences and their actual reactions.
Family version - Running for approximately one minute, this "family version" is essentially a few shots of the protagonists driving through the countryside in their car. Amusing, but ultimately a one-note joke. It has an introduction by an extremely cheerful Eli Roth.
Chick-vision - Even more pointless than the Family Version, this feature runs the whole movie, with "hands" covering up the screen whenever something scary happens. This feature might have been good if not for the fact that the hands that appear are in fact jerky, blocky cut-outs presented as a subtitle stream.
The Rotten Fruit - Before he made Cabin Fever, Roth produced a number of claymation shorts involving a British band of foul-mouthed grocery products called the Rotten Fruit. Best described as a cross between Morph, South Park and The Garden Gang, these three shorts see our heroes tackling an insidious boy band, dealing with online music sharing, and trashing a hotel suite. Absolutely hilarious provided you have a juvenile sense of humour, these shorts are, in my opinion, better than the main feature itself. There is a rumour that all the Rotten Fruit shorts are to be released on DVD, and to that I say "Bring it on!"
"Beneath the Skin" featurette - This half-hour documentary is a lighthearted and sometimes informative look at the production of the film. A number of the key players are interviewed, including director Roth, a number of the actors, producers Sam Froelich, Lauren Moews and Evan Astrowsky, director of photography Scott Kevan, production designer Franco Carbone, composer Angelo Badalamenti, and of course, Roth's parents. Although you get the impression that they're only scratching the surface (the real meat is saved for the commentaries), there's plenty to enjoy here. The highlight is matieral featuring Badalamenti playing some of the film's themes on a piano, with some footage from the film synchronized to it.
Pancakes - "Pancakes?" I hear you say. "What about pancakes?" My thoughts exactly. This piece of VHS footage shows Denis the Mullet Kid (don't ask) performing karate moves in sync with the song "Gay Bar". Like I said, don't ask. Some things just can't be explained.
This is certainly a pretty lavish package for Cabin Fever, especially in terms of bonus material. While the film itself can hardly be called a masterpiece, it has in my opinion been rather unfairly maligned, perhaps mostly by people who were expecting something different. At the end of the day, Cabin Fever succeeds in being a trashy and enjoyable splatter movie with some decent photography and an ample helping of humour. If you don't like it, that's fair enough, but don't knock it until you've given it a chance.