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Saturday, 24 October 2009

Cabin Fever (2002)

Director: Eli Roth
Stars: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern and Arie Verveen
Even though I'm a huge fan of horror movies, for some reason I've managed to entirely avoid the career of Eli Roth. That wasn't any deliberate decision, it's just the way it turned out, as I'm really interested in seeing what he can do and this seems like a good place to start: Cabin Fever was his debut feature as a writer/producer/director/actor/you name it, made on a low $1.5m budget. While he's lumped in with other modern filmmakers as one of the Splat Pack, focusing on gore and scenes of outrageous torture, I've always seen his name in something of a different light.

Of all the modern directors, he seems to be the most recent example of the the classic model of the fan made good. Seeing Alien at age eight turned him into a filmmaker, churning out film after film on Super 8 before growing old enough to sign up for film school at New York University. He gives the impression that while he's obviously successful at what he does, it doesn't really matter. He's there because he makes movies, it's simply who he is, and if nobody in the world wanted to see another horror movie ever again, he'd carry on making them just so he could see them. No wonder Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino are fans of his. They're kindred spirits.

Cabin Fever starts like many a horror film, with a set of college kids heading up to a remote cabin in the woods for a vacation. There are five of them and they're the usual sort, though we surprisingly get less gratuitous sex and nudity than we might expect and more character development as they react to the enemy they face together in the woods. They find themselves attacked by the least attackable enemy of them all, a contagious flesh eating virus, inspired by Roth's own experiences of the debilitating skin condition called psoriasis which I know well. At least my skin never came off in strips when shaving but that gave Roth a highly memorable bath scene here out of his experience.

There's talent here, that's obvious. Roth seems to delight in playing with our expectations, especially early on but throughout the film too. We get good transitions between scenes and artistic contrasts in colour and sound. We even get a great scene that demonstrates just how far out of their own world these kids are going. The owner of the store they stop at on the way to their cabin is Old Man Cadwell, a stereotypically nice old man with a long white beard who wouldn't say boo to a goose. And then, in the same happy tone he uses all along to pass the time of day, he explains that the bottle of fox urine is for foxes and the rifle is for niggers.

The kids make it to the cabin and get a day of fun before Henry the hermit comes out of the woods with his flesh eating disease. Henry has already run into Bert, who shot him with a rifle because he somehow mistook him for a woodchuck, but now he's up against all five of them, who naturally don't want anything to do with some crazy dude outside their cabin with his face falling off. When they don't let him in, he tries to steal their truck, vomits blood all over it and ends up dying when they accidentally set him on fire and leave him to rush off ablaze into nowhere. The irony is that while they successfully keep him out of their cabin, he ends up in their water supply instead, dead and rotting into the reservoir. Soon the virus is alive and well in the cabin, working its way through our college students, though in a wonderful example of clever scriptwriting it becomes a MacGuffin.

The kids do a good job here, believable and distinguishable from moment one. We're given nothing of their background, except they all went to some college and Paul may or may not have spent his childhood at a bowling alley where all the employees got massacred. This whole flashback, told as a campfire story, could easily be a windup and an excuse for Eli Roth to get bloody on us again. So they have to forge their characters through reactions to circumstances that show their true colours, and while we inevitably get some genre cliches they're mostly left behind in favour of realistic responses. They're far less disposable than most disposable horror movie victims.

Hired at low rates because of the lack of budget, the cast and crew made out well in the end, because Cabin Fever was a massive success, the highest grossing horror film of the year, and Eli Roth shared the profits with them. I wonder how differently this would have turned out had the budget been huge. Who would have been cast? Would they have played their parts differently with a bulkier wage packet in their pockets? Because it was low budget, Roth ended up with an intriguing set of names who have probably done very well out of this film indeed.

The five college kids are Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent and Joey Kern, of which list I'd heard of precisely one: Jordan Ladd. The daughter of Cheryl and granddaughter of Alan, she has become something of a horror genre regular, going on to films like Club Dread, Hostel: Part II and, most recently, the excellent Grace. Strong is best known as one of the stars of the TV show Boy Meets World and Vincent was Maya the Yellow Power Ranger. Both are fine here, but the characters of Bert and Jeff give their co-stars more opportunities to be highlighted.

DeBello plays Bert a little like John Belushi might play him. After buying tons of stuff at the store, he steals a Snickers bar, presumably just because he can. It takes no time whatsoever before he pees in the woods. He takes a rifle to shoot squirrels, 'because they're gay', then clarifies that he'd shoot them anyway whether they were gay or straight. He sets a fire circle in the woods and leaves. He's an idiot, the funniest guy in the world to some friends and a complete pain in the ass to everyone else. In contrast, Kern channels some River Phoenix to play Jeff, the least able of the bunch to stick together and deal with the problem at hand. Sure enough, when he heads out on his own, he takes a case of Arrogant Bastard beer with him.

Eli Roth himself turns up in the form of Grim, a skater from Berkeley with a dog called Dr Mambo, and he's one of a few characters who really don't contribute much to the film but nonetheless stand out as memorable. One of the others is deputy sheriff Winston Olsen. In the hands of Giuseppe Andrews, Olsen (so named because genre nut Roth is bizarrely a huge fan of Mary Kate and Ashley) reminds of nobody less than Corey Feldman. If you can imagine the Feldmeister playing a cop, you've either seen this film or you're seriously twisted in the head. Maybe both.

Most obviously there's teenage ballet dancer and martial arts exponent Matthew Helms as Dennis, a true gift of a part to anyone, whether they're an actor or not. Dennis sits on the bench outside the store at the beginning of the film and bites Paul. After all, 'nobody sits next to Dennis' explains his dad. Roth pays attention to the little details in his script and sure enough, after a quick liability discussion, posts a sign saying 'Do not sit next to Dennis'. The pancakes scene, late in the film, is hilarious and surreal and whatever the talented Helms does with the rest of his life, this will always be a great talking point.

Of course it's impossible to talk about Eli Roth without mentioning the gore and his effects work is excellent, without ever becoming the most important thing in the film. That surprised me. The one exception is the scene where Paul runs into an obviously stuffed deer at one point that could surely have been edited into something a lot less painful. There's blood everywhere, like a highlights reel from CSI, and there are memorable shots like the bath scene, Ashley Ladd's eaten face and what happens to the harmonica. This is a lovely little touch and it's not the only one: there's also a giant rabbit (and his credit) and the inevitable ending is handled very well indeed. With obvious inspirations from films from Deliverance to Night of the Living Dead, Roth plays our expectations enough to create something new and while it's not difficult to see through some of them, some of the others are gems. No wonder it was the biggest horror hit of the year.

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