Wednesday, October 30, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Cabin Fever

Amazing to think that it’s over a decade since ‘Cabin Fever’ came roaring onto cinema screens on a tsunami of hype that made ‘The Blair Witch Project’ seem under-represented. Amazing to think that Eli Roth was being talked up as the future of horror. And amazing to think, given the not inconsiderable amount of box office success and industry buzz that came his way in a very short space of time – not to mention becoming big buddies with Quentin Tarantino – that Roth has only made two films since: the hugely xenophobic and moderately misogynistic ‘Hostel’, and the hugely misogynistic and moderately xenophobic ‘Hostel 2’.

Look at ‘Cabin Fever’ now and it’s impossible to see the film for what it is: a shaggy dog story. But here’s the rub – Roth is not without talent. For all that the ‘Hostel’ films promulgate a grubby and unlikeable world view that comes on as two parts drunken frat boy to one part casual racism, they evoke a very specific and stomach-churningly effective sense of foreignness; before any Achille’s tendons are severed or surgical tools misused, Roth incrementally strips his characters of every vestige of entitled white middle class Americana, miring them in an ancient, superstitious and coldly intolerant culture.

It’s an ability that should serve him well in the forthcoming ‘Green Inferno’, Roth’s first directorial outing in six years (although early reviews are already talking up one-dimensional characters and a redundant first half), and it’s tempting to see the seeds of his cannibal opus – as well as the ‘Hostel’ films – as being in present in ‘Cabin Fever’. First point of comparison: a group of college kids journey somewhere (here, to the backwoods; the geographical peregrinations are pushed further with each film). Second: their initial interactions with the local populace betray their naivety/ignorance. Third: nasty shit happens.

The college kids in ‘Cabin Fever’ are smarmy law student Jeff (Joey Kern) and his voluptuous girlfriend Marcy (Cerina Vincent), douche-bro asshole Burt (James DeBello), ostensibly sensitive type Paul (Rider Strong) and girl-next-door Karen (Jordan Ladd), whom Paul is eyeing as girlfriend material. Karen, however, very much regards him as just a friend. Meanwhile, Jeff and Marcy are at it like rabbits while Burt just wants to go shooting squirrels in the woods. With Jeff and Burt as different varieties of macho asshole and Marcy as the all-purpose siren (Roth’s camera spends so much time lingering on Cerina Vincent’s midriff, the film begins to feel stalkerish), Paul and Karen are the only remotely sympathetic characters, a set-up that Roth subverts utterly by the halfway point.

In one sense, ‘Cabin Fever’ adheres to the tropes: a cabin in the woods, threatening hillbilly characters, a killer dog, cellphones betrayed by lack of signal, various contrivances that prevent the protagonists from leaving. In another, it doesn’t. The script flirts with the convention of final girl, vacillating between Karen and Marcy, before abandoning the idea altogether. The hillbillies are portrayed, at least until the gun-happy denouement, as considerably more calm and rational than the college kids. The comedy law enforcement – personified by Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews) – becomes more protracted in the increasingly surreal coda.

And on the subject of said finale, ‘Cabin Fever’ has the gumption to play its last few minutes as if the preceding hour and a half were nothing more than the set-up for a punchline. This ought to feel like a cheat, or at best a hasty wrap-up before the whole infected water supply subplot threatens to necessitate another half hour’s running time and considerably more greenbacks in the budget, but somehow the sheer insouciant absurdity of it works.

In ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel 2’, stereotypes and sadism replaced the gallows humour of ‘Cabin Fever’. Based on the trailer and advance reviews, the probability is that humour will be notable only by its absence in ‘The Green Inferno’. Which leaves only this and ‘Thanksgiving’, the fake trailer Roth created for ‘Grindhouse’, as evidence of something that’s probably not at the top of anyone’s list at industry meetings but which I think would merit exploration: Eli Roth could direct the hell out of a comedy.


Tim said...

"the hugely xenophobic and moderately misogynistic ‘Hostel’, and the hugely misogynistic and moderately xenophobic ‘Hostel 2’."

Seriously, I love you.

Neil Fulwood said...

The Agitation of the Mind: inspiring cinephile bromance since 2007.