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Review: Cabin Fever (2003)

Cabin Fever (2003)

Directed by: Eli Roth

Premise: A group of college students spend a weekend at an isolated cabin and gradually become infected with a flesh-eating virus.

What Works: Cabin Fever has a lot in it to admire but if it is judged merely as an exercise in horror filmmaking, it succeeds as a very creepy and well-made picture. The filmmakers clearly understand how to make a horror film scary with effective use of lighting, especially in a campfire sequence, and using creatively shot visual effects combined with well-chosen sounds.  Cabin Fever is an example of low budget filmmaking using its lack of resources to its advantage and the sparce look of the picture give the film its authenticity and creates an atmosphere of dread. As the disease spreads among the vacationers, Cabin Fever escalates the tension in its story very effectively and the film has a growing claustrophobia as doom gradually closes in on the central characters. The success that the film has in building tension is due in large part to the contributions of the script and actors in characterizing the main cast. The lead characters fulfill many of the stereotypical horror film character types but the actors transcend them and earn our sympathies. Because we don’t want them to die the film is scarier and its climax is more intense. But beyond Cabin Fever’s success in fulfilling its basic horror goals, it is also distinguished by merging hip, meta-horror with intense old school gore. Originally released to theaters in the fall of 2003, Cabin Fever came out after the Scream-inspired, self-aware slasher films of the 1990s had run their course but before the genre turned to the torture pictures headlined by Saw and Hostel. Cabin Fever fits neatly within the two trends and it features many of their best qualities. Like the post-modern slasher films of the previous decade, Cabin Fever demonstrates genre-awareness with allusions to other pictures such as The Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead and it has a sense of fun. Anticipating the torture films that came later, Cabin Fever also indulges gory showmanship, using some impressive make up effects that emphasize the mutilation of flesh. This combination works very well because these qualities simultaneously strengthen and restrain each other. The violence is considerable and while it gives Cabin Fever its horrific sincerity, the filmmaker’s cartoonish sense of fun keeps the picture light enough so that the gore does not overwhelm the audience and send them into despair. Similarly, Cabin Fever’s sense of humor is held within the margins of horror; even though there are some laughs in the picture, Cabin Fever always takes itself seriously enough to sustain its credibility and the audience maintains its fear.

What Doesn’t: Cabin Fever was the debut feature for director Eli Roth and the picture has some of the flaws of a first-time filmmaker. The story is fairly predictable, in part because the film draws deliberately from other movies. The characters of Cabin Fever, although realized beyond their stereotypes, are also somewhat stupid and make the kind of bad decisions that will have an audience ridiculing them. It isn’t obnoxious and Cabin Fever’s flaws are cushioned by its sense of humor.

DVD extras: Commentary tracks, featurettes, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Cabin Fever is a horror film that is enough fun to appeal to non-horror viewers while demonstrating the kind of intelligence and self-awareness that genre fans will enjoy. It’s no classic but Cabin Fever is a better film than a lot of horror pictures released before and since.

Episode: #385 (April 22, 2012)