It's things like this that keep me goin' to the discount stores: picked up a copy of Eli Roth's Cabin Fever (2003) recently for cheap, and, after watching it, I definitely consider it five bucks well spent. I'd read about Roth after his more recent Hostel had drawn raves from a variety of horror aficionados, but this was my first experience with his feature work (I do have a vague memory of seeing at least one of his Rotten Fruit shorts, though I can't dredge up where that was).
Based on what I've read about Hostel, I suspect Roth's first feature is more to my tastes: a willfully disreputable recreation of '70s drive-in horror excess that gleefully zips from eye-cringing gore (a leg-shaving scene that's so memorable they use the moment on the DVD's menu) to broad rural antics that would make Herschel Gordon Lewis chortle – all in the service of messily dispatching a crew of brazenly familiar collegians.
The movie centers around a quintet of unlikable vacationing students who've rented a cabin in the woods and discover, to their dismay, that the hill man who happened upon their campfire and started spewing blood all over the inside of their truck has a highly contagious rapidly manifesting flesh-eating virus.
Before you can say, "Every man for himself," one of the group comes down with the disease – and the rest lock her up for the night in a nearby woodshed. Unbeknownst to them, the contagious hill man has wandered off to die and fall into the reservoir that feeds the area's drinking water.
Where horror flicks like the original Night of the Living Dead took their cast of ordinary folk and forced them to reluctantly band together in the interests of survival, the kids in Fever waste little time in self-interestedly splitting apart. The nature of the disease – the fact that any one of 'em could already be infected – is part of the problem, but since even the flick's putative nice guy, passive-aggressive Paul (Boy Meets World's Rider Strong,) is a bit of a self-serving dick, you get the feeling that these kids would fly apart just as quickly facing a machete-wielding maniac.
Those few representatives of the outside world – a seemingly racist shopkeeper, a sheriff's deputy who acts like he wandered in off of a bad porno, a crazed farm wife – are no help, of course, but that's standard for these kinds of movies. What's new is the speed with which our core group disintegrates into a pack of self-serving assholes.
If Roth's take on human nature is profoundly cynical, the travails he subjects his victims to are so crowd-pleasingly tasteless (he gives us one of the nastiest foreplay scenes ever – and later tops this queasy moment of sexual shock with a shot of our hero Paul pouring Listerine on his crotch!) that their outlandishness lightens things up considerably.
The film's erratic tone may push it out of the realm of "pure horror" (unlike, as I understand it, Hostel,) but for me it proved part of the movie's appeal. Even Fever's nobody-gets-out-of-here-alive conclusion is keyed to jaunty bluegrass music, a tip of the fiddle to earlier rural gore-fests like 2,000 Maniacs and Last House on the Left: tragedy tomorrow, corn-pone comedy tonight . . .