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Cabin Fever: Terror in the Flesh

A kind of, sort of review

WARNING: The following review (if you can call it that) contains some minor spoilers. If you haven't seen the film already, I would advise against reading this. But if you don't mind a few small surprises and plot points being blown for you, then go right ahead. And while we're at it, I might as well tell you what I got you for Christmas...but we'll get to that later.

How is everyone doing? Hopefully better than the kids in this movie. And that hayseed law enforcement officer after he got a nice taste of that all-American lemonade. I just thought I'd pop in to say, as a lifelong movie buff and aspiring screenwriter, I found "Cabin Fever" the perfect tonic to the rest of these so-called summer blockbusters. What Terror in the Flesh has that no other film this season possessed (including the many nuanced 'Matchstick Men') was careful structure, genuine suspense, SUBTLE social commentary and, most importantly, dexterous use of atmospherics. In spite of the clear and dramatic contrasts between Cabin Fever and the work of director Eli Roth's mentor David Lynch; there nonetheless is a beautiful underlying resemblance. This is not some asshole writer's attempt at making the masterful Eli Roth out to be an imitator. Not at all! All I'm saying is, Cabin Fever successfully distilled that overall cinematic aesthetic that Lynch is so famous for; the ability to make ugly things seem beautiful when captured on celluloid. Always engaging, always thought-provoking and, as some have pointed out, always enigmatic.

For Eli [A Compliment of the Highest Order]: Cabin Fever smacks of 70's/80's horror film influence. And there are several themes, plot points and references that have been inspired by the likes of Last House on the Left (...the road leads to nowhere), Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, etc. (all cult classics, mind you). And that's no big deal at this point, right? I mean, hey, everyone from the tragically hip gay Kevin Williamson (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) to the poignantly gory and visceral Rob Zombie ("House of 1000 Corpses", his whole music catalog) have revisited or revitalized this sort of genre of pictures. Some successfully. Some unsuccessfully. But I think what sets Eli's first foray into live action feature films apart from the rest of the pack is his attention to detail, his refusal to go straight for the cliche and, more over, his aversion towards passing judgement of any kind.

As much as I enjoyed Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses for its grindhouse origins, intraverted colors and allusions to Argento and Troma (the ending was pure Mother's Day), I would have to say that it was inferior in some ways to C.F. by virture of Mr. Roth's love of his characters. And that might sound strange because of the grisly ways in which they are systematically disposed of. But nevertheless, this is paradoxically true.

I realized this about a quarter of the way through the film. By this point, I had heard the crude, amoral and sexually promiscuous antics of these apathetic teenagers and thought to myself, "God, these are my peers! I've met these god-awful people many times! I've known girl after girl who talked about being gang-fucked like it was as normal as swapping spit in junior high! I hate these types! I pity them and hate them at the same time! It's gonna be fun to watch these kids get offed one by one!"

But in spite of their obvious lack of tact or reservations of any kind, Roth wrote the film so that they grow on you as the film progresses. And in spite of the "Each man for himself" attitude that ultimately ends up meaning their demise, we can empathize with them. Because fundamentally, they represent everything that is human about us...for good or ill.

It takes a good filmmaker to show us what is evil in our human character. It takes a great filmmaker to construct a film that makes us question our shortcomings and amoralities while still endearing the characters to us. We end up liking MOST of these kids because, after all, they are us. Everyone's a little Eddie Haskel and a little Beav. And both are equally miscievous and cruel at times. But we all have some modicum of good in us, some form of allegiance or honor or decency. As Bert (James Debello) illustrates in the cabin when the hicks come to do away with him and Rider Strong.

Thank you, Eli, for delivering the first good suspense film of the year (the first horror/comedy/actioner being "Jeepers Creepers 2", of course!). And God Bless Angelo Badalamenti!

I would also like to go on record as concurring with Barry Caldwell (Cabin Fever's script supervisor and a fixture on the message board at www.cabinfevermovie.com) who made a sterling point: a true gem is something that reveals new wonders to you upon second, third, even 100th viewing. Take Terry Gilliam's screen adaptation of "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas", for example. Now there is a movie that always has a new attraction ready for the audience. I must have watched that film fifty times before I even discovered who Mark Harmon's fellow reporter is really supposed to be. Hell, I didn't even notice said character in the lobby of the hotel in the second act until my twenty-fifth viewing.

Fun fact: James Debello and Guiseppe Andrews ("Hey, it's the party man!") previously appeared together in Adam Rifkin's "Detroit Rock City", a thoroughly enjoyable, shameless rip-off of Allan Arkush's "Rock N Roll High School".

Recently I posted the above "quasi-review" on the message board at the Cabin Fever Website (www.cabinfevermovie.com). Today (Sept. 28), I get an e-mail from a fan of the film. For whatever reason, she thought I was the omniscient figure when it came to the movie. I can't imagine why, but God bless her. What follows is a broad outline of our online convo:

Q: hey i just wanted to ask u a question because you really seemed like you understood cabin fever... what was the point of the boy and the whole pancakes/kung fu scene... was there a point? lol.. i thought it was hilarious but u kno how everyone says that everything has a meaning so i figured if anyone knew what it was it would be u.. well thanks for ur help!

A: How ya doin? Thanks for contacting me and all, but I'm far from the source on the subject. If anybody would know "all the answers," it would probably be somebody close to the picture. Like this Barry Caldwell cat (barrycaldwell@hotmail.com). Yes, I enjoyed the movie and I think I understood the bulk of it. But like his mentor David Lynch, I think the director of Cabin Fever wanted to kind of keep us in the dark and keep us guessing. That's what a good mystery does, anyway.

In the book "Lynch on Lynch", Eli Roth's aforementioned mentor said something to the effect that all interpretations of a movie are true, in a sense, because those interpretations are the unique ways a person assimilates a motion picture puzzle. So, for instance, if I were to say that Laura Harring and Naomi Watts were, essentially, the same person in "Mulholland Drive" and another person argued that Laura Harring was the mistress of Watts' would-be lover (the Justin Theroux character), then we would both be right...sort of.

So whatever conclusions you draw are probably just as valid or legitimate as mine. My interpretation of the whole pancakes/kung-fu thing was just that Dennis (the boy) was a delerious mental case of some sort. I mean, from the get-go, it is obvious that this child suffers from some sort of mental disorder...or what the hicks out in the sticks would call "simple". Pancakes and kung-fu moves are probably little fragments of culture just drifting around in his warped mind.

What I liked most about the film was its potential for double entendre, how the virus could be a literal one and a metaphorical one. In one way, it is a flesh-eating virus contracted by contact with either the little boy (who could arguably be a host immune to the disease) or the sick man in the woods; on the other hand, it could be a message about the dangers of youthful promiscuity. Notice how the first symptom is a rash near the characters' genitalia?

That's all I can make out of it. I'm sure, given the opportunity to see the movie again, we could both unearth a whole lot of other mysteries and metaphors. My advice would be to go and see it again.

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