Cabin Fever proves if nothing else that having a good grounding in horror can get you a long way. Director Eli Roth clearly knows his stuff, and wears his influences proudly – there’s Texas Chainsaw’s backwoods inbreds, Friday the 13th’s sex-and-beer loving teens, Last House’s comedy coppers and Night of the Living Dead’s blackly ironic pay-off. But if somewhat overrated in some quarters, is still a lively enough romp.
Five kids – frisky couple Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Bert (James DeBello), beer-guzzling Jeff (Joey Kern) and the more sensible Paul (Rider Strong) and Karen (Jordan Ladd) – hire a cabin in the North Carolina woods for a weekend of partying. An encounter with a diseased hermit puts a swift end to their fun, and one by one the kids start contracting a mysterious flesh-eating virus.
Cabin Fever opens rather awkwardly – it’s hard to tell if the old duffer warning the quintet from venturing into the woods is mocking a genre convention or not, and the kids themselves are characters we’ve seen a hundred times before. The film quickly finds its groove though, and Roth wastes little time in getting his unlucky campers into contact with the contagion. First big, bloody holes appear in Karen’s thigh (she’s locked in the woodshed), next Jeff’s stomach is dripping all over the floor and Marcie’s back and legs ain’t looking too peachy (just watch the shaving-in-the-bath scene – eugh!). The performances are pretty good, and Roth conveys a creeping sense of claustrophobic unease well. Naturally, the director has to come up with a set of contrivances to keep his victims from just leaving the woods – a crazed dog on the loose, a broken-down truck, zero reception on their cellphones. These are completely blatant devices, but forgivable.
Roth throws in a load of other characters with mixed results. Giuseppe Andrews’ party-loving idiot deputy is hilarious, but the trio of gun-toting redneck goons only seem to be there to up the body count. And the film never quite finds the right tone – part serious body horror, part quirky spoof, Roth undercuts the terror of the situation by throwing in splatstick moments like the guy who swallows a harmonica after being twatted by a guitar. But it’s entertaining enough, and Roth makes a low budget go a long way. He's yet to find a style of his own, but he's a welcome addition to the genre.