1 star (out of 4)
As long as young people continue to make dumb choices, they will keep getting killed in horror movies. The question is: How do you kill them off in inventive, or at least engrossing, ways?Some films in the genre have found success by coming up with either new sources of evil (the cursed videotape in "The Ring"), or new ways of framing the action (the fake-doc "The Blair Witch Project"). But most still look over their shoulders for inspiration, either through self-reference ("Scream"), remakes ("The Ring" first appeared as Japan's "Ringu"), cross-pollination ("Freddy vs. Jason") or sequels (take your pick).
"Cabin Fever," a woodland body-count flick, makes a dumb choice by not choosing strongly enough to be anything at all. While it's definitely old-school, it doesn't have enough of a twist to improve on the type of films it's derived from. It's just a watery, undeservedly smug update of the low-budget, kids-stranded-in-the-sticks bloodfests of the 1970s and '80s.
After a promising opening-credits sequence (perhaps the most suspenseful part of the film) and a hint that something bloody is afoot in the forest, five college grads set out in a truck for some partying at a rural cabin. There's the snotty blond hunk and his bratty Playmate-esque girlfriend, the blond ingénue and the childhood friend who pines for her, plus one pigheaded frat-boy type. They're all unlikable idiots, though the frat boy has some comic charisma.
They stop by a kooky general store, then settle into the cabin for the evening, where they are set upon by a man spewing blood and begging for help. They fend him off in cruel panic, but his mysterious blood-spewing disease (supposedly the flesh-eating virus, though that's never made clear) works its way into the group. Thus ensues a predictable mix of fear, infighting, futile quests for help and, of course, buckets of blood.
Despite a couple of intelligent moments (or, perhaps, because of them), the film feels like an underachievement. There's a winning one-liner or two, but not enough to make it tongue-in-cheek. There are a few icky shots - a woman shaving over her skin lesions, for instance - but not enough of them to make it scary. "Cabin Fever" is bad, but not bad enough to be good.
The film lacks the earnestness of its predecessors; it wants to be a return to form, but I don't recall "Tourist Trap" ever winking at the camera this much. A lot of low-budget horror films - no matter how bad the acting, how silly the story, or how much fun they made of their victims - maintained an on-screen deadpan, which is why they were able to make people squirm, laugh or both.
Since "Cabin Fever" doesn't achieve that, every so often during its suspenseless bloodshed, it just wedges in some thudding humor or dumb, smug references (like "The Shining"-esque appearance of a guy in a bunny suit). The result is like walking through a haunted house where the costumed corpses keep cracking up at themselves.
First-time director Eli Roth is a purported protege of David Lynch, so he also squeezes in a couple of kooky townspeople backed by Angelo Badalamenti (a composer who worked with Lynch) tunes. A better tribute would have been to emulate Lynch's daring. How? By committing to doing something, anything, to make the experience memorable, instead of just gleefully rehashing a type of film that's always been characterized by mediocrity anyway.
The kids who give their lives in "Cabin Fever" - and the real kids who will waste their lives watching it - deserve better.
Directed by Eli Roth; written by Roth, Randy Pearlstein; photographed by Scott Kevan; edited by Ryan Folsey; production designed by Franco Giacomo-Carbone; music by Nathan Barr, Angelo Badalamenti; produced by Roth, Lauren Moews, Sam Froelich, Evan Astrowsky. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, Sept. 12. Running Time: 1:34. MPAA rating: R (strong violence and gore, sexuality, language and brief drug use).
Paul - Rider Strong
Karen - Jordan Ladd
Jeff - Joey Kern
Marcy - Cerina Vincent
Bert - James DeBello