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It Could Happen to You
Dir. Eli Roth, U.S. Lion’s Gate Films
The world can be broken down into two types of people: those who walk around with those creepy water-free bottles of hand sanitizer and those who don’t. The former should steer clear of Eli Roth’s paean to flesh-eating bacteria, and the latter…well, let’s just say that they may want to pick up a bottle or two upon exiting the theater. Not unlike Danny Boyle’s supposed Romero homage 28 Days Later and the lackluster videogame spin-off Resident Evil, Cabin Fever is a germaphobe flick masquerading as a horror film, albeit with far more film-savvy results. The fact that the disease in question, Necrotising Fasciitis, is quite real (Fun Fact: over 1,500 contract it annually. And before you breathe a sigh of relief and thank some deity that you don’t live in a Third World country, that figure is for the U.S. alone) never delivers the resonance that it should. But then, it’s hard to take something seriously when it’s delivered in an exploding dog carcass…
The narrative itself is little more than a carefully arranged amalgam of well-trod horror tropes, though at least Roth has the common sense to poach from the best: Evil Dead’s kids-in-a-cabin claustrophobia, Deliverance’s redneck heebie jeebies, the glorified gore of Dead Alive, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s visceral impact, the entire finale from Night of the Living Dead, even Outbreak’s paranoia. There’s even an actual “Old Man Cadwell” to boot. Cabin Fever is not a film that demonizes the disease, but the carrier. Us. Call it an early case of 28 Days Later redux. Cabin Fever waves its “ain’t the world populated by sickos” banner well before the skin starts peeling—in a recollected story from his youth, Paul (Rider Strong) flashes back to a murder spree at his local bowling alley (which, oddly enough, smacks of Stand By Me, though with less pie-induced vomiting and more decapitated heads in the ball return). The moral, plain and simple: humanity is the disease, and one not easily cut out.
But then, humanity never made anyone’s skin do an impression of a really pissed off case of psoriasis. Or did it? In the wake of 2001’s anthrax scare and the looming non-threat of widespread biological warfare, disease seems almost a personal attack. Heck, it’s anti-American. And so, to see a gaggle of suburban whitebread specimens infected is, in and of itself, moderately disturbing—and watching one nubile subject literally shave her legs is without a doubt the most squirm-inducing moment in recent horror history. More interesting, perhaps, is the possibility that the co-eds themselves are the disease, unable to acclimate to the rural environment they’ve invaded. (A brief tangent: do horny college kids actually spend their vacations up at decaying old cabins in Deliverance country anymore? Did the exploits at Camp Crystal Lake teach them nothing? It almost makes one long for the media-savvy denizens of the Scream trilogy. Almost.)
And maybe that’s enough for a film like Cabin Fever, to coyly play with spectatorial “what ifs” and “what would you dos” while indulging in its own admittedly stunning and stomach-turning makeup effects. Still, a pile of carefully woven movie homages does not an innovative film make. Enjoyable, certainly, though horror novices would be far better off running a marathon of the aforementioned titles, and horror buffs will prefer queuing up to see Cabin Fever’s bravura, balls-to-the-wall evil cousin, Freddy Vs. Jason. While it will surely find a happy home amongst the slash and hack crowd (and undoubtedly become the fulfilled nightmare of many a Kleenex-carrying pathophobic), Cabin Fever never scratches its own itch, devolving into a nonsensical bloodbath that undermines the very nausea it aims to inflict.