Does it matter that even the most enjoyable horror movies nowadays hardly have a voice to call their own? I say it’s nothing to get hung about — John Carpenter, after all, stole from Howard Hawks, Wes Craven cribbed from Ingmar Bergman, and Brian De Palma (and everyone else) filled his shopping cart with boxes of Hitchcock.
So when a Rob Zombie makes House of 1000 Corpses (which genuflected to Tobe Hooper) or a Danny Boyle presents 28 Days Later (which raided George Romero’s Dead trilogy but forgot the skill), they’re following in the footsteps of their masters in more ways than one. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever is an unabashed homage to grungy ’70s and ’80s rural horror, tipping its hat to everything from Last House on the Left (Roth even uses that film’s signature ballad) to The Evil Dead (cabins are bad, bad news in these movies). In other words, to paraphrase Tenacious D, this is not the greatest horror movie in the world; this is just a tribute.
And a fun one it is, written (by Roth and Randy Pearlstein) with a degree of roughhouse wit. The first reel, in fact, plays a little like that ’80s-comedy-made-in-2001 Wet Hot American Summer. Five college kids — reserved Paul (Rider Strong), approachable blonde Karen (Jordan Ladd), self-absorbed Jeff (Joey Kern), wild child Marcy (Cerina Vincent), and frat jock Bert (James DeBello) — head into the sticks for a weekend in a cabin. The area, they soon discover, is tainted: A staggering hermit, his skin corroded and his lungs spraying blood, pleads with the kids for help, but they panic and … well, let the remorseful Karen tell it in a nutshell: “He came to us for help. We set him on fire.”
I have to love a movie with lines like that. (And Roth even nods to Carpenter’s The Thing by having a character suggest that they start preparing their own food.) Cabin Fever establishes its terror alert early on — contamination! eek! — and treats it lightly while taking it seriously. The comedy here is not the reflexive sort, wherein the characters have all seen this movie before. It comes out of the realistic reactions a group of none-too-bright underclassmen might have when faced with blood-spewing doom. Filled with gratuitous gore (at one point, an entire jeep drips with the stuff) and sex (a comely female character muses that she should be grabbing the nearest guy and having a last bout of we-who-are-about-to-die-have-sex activity; cut to her jumping the bones of the nearest grateful guy), the film is solidly of a subgenre I over-reference, but it fits: the beer-and-pizza flick.
Roth tosses in some obvious set-ups, like a feral kid outside a rural store who bites anyone who comes near him, or a goateed skateboarder with a hungry dog, or — just for the sake of an eleventh-hour laugh — a wizened shopkeeper who casually mutters the “n” word. Of the actors, Joey Kern (who resembles a fey Trey Parker) has a great final scene capped by a perhaps too-knowing glance at the end of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Rider Strong sells a particularly repugnant scene that teaches the importance of testing a ladder’s strength, and Giuseppe Andrews, as an unlikely deputy who’s like a cross between David Arquette’s Deputy Dewey in the Scream movies and Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, plays exactly the sort of guy who would, like, totally be into this movie, dude.
I was into it myself. Cabin Fever threw me few (if any) curves; it reminded me a little of the underappreciated, nasty little slasher comedy Cherry Falls, which had similar fun with its premise. Still, it’s the kind of cheapjack movie (complete with syrupy-looking blood and a refreshing complete lack of CGI tricks) I revere if it was made twenty years ago — my shelves creak under the weight of DVD gems like I Drink Your Blood and Squirm — so why not praise a new entry? Dude, like, totally break out the beer and pizza.