Movie Review: The Whole Damn Cabin Fever Franchise

imdb-cabin-fever-title-screenComprising four films since 2002, including the 2016 remake of the original, Cabin Fever is one of the lesser known horror franchises. One of the purest examples of the “body horror” genre, the stories revolve around a mysterious, never explained virus that slowly, grotesquely liquefies the flesh of its victims.

Eli Roth’s [IMDB] inspiration for the original film, his first, came after suffering a severe skin infection while on vacation. Unfortunately, Hollywood had lost confidence in the horror genre and the script was roundly rejected for several years. After a resurgence of interest in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the film was completed on a shoestring budget of $1.5 million. Picked up for distribution by Lion’s Gate, it became their highest grossing property, and the highest grossing horror film overall, of the year, with nearly $22 million in domestic sales.

Roth would go on to write and direct the significantly more successful Hostel [IMDB] two years later. He wasn’t involved, creatively, in the later films, although his writing partner and former roommate, Randy Pearlstein [IMDB], would contribute to most of them.

imdb-cabin-feverCabin Fever

Horror/Comedy, 93 Minutes, 2002

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The story is familiar: a group of teens head into the woods for a week of drinking and debauchery. They stop at a country store and have an ominous run-in with the locals. They reach their cabin and begin to relax just in time to start dropping dead.

There’s a cool guy and his amorous girlfriend. A sweet girl and her best friend, the shy guy that’s been quietly in love with her for years. There’s also a fool who nobody seems to like and causes nothing but trouble, but somehow worked his way into a group vacation.

The tropes run deep.

Which works oddly to its advantage. It so perfectly evokes the feeling of late eighties horror that you may forget how recently it was made. It hits every classic beat – even the bad ones – like polished Swiss clockwork. The characters are clichés, but likable, comfortable clichés. The setting is cliché, but lovingly rendered, self-aware cliché.

There is some silliness, mostly in the form of especially stupid decisions. Some of these are clearly intentional, but fail to hit the mark. Others, like when the teens repeatedly find potential sources of help then inexplicably lie about them, seem more like lazy writing. They’ll induce some groans, but are forgivable in context.

The practical special effects are particularly well done. The sloughing skin and open sores are incredibly disturbing and graphically bloody, yet somehow still restrained. There’s an elegance to the presentation that makes the most of both what you see and, more importantly, what you don’t see.

Characters, setting, effects and story; all the pieces come together to create a classic traditional horror flick. This is a must see for horror fans.

imdb-cabin-fever-2Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever

Horror/Comedy, 86 Minutes, 2009

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The first movie ended with an ominous hook: rotting, infected corpses floating in the water source for a local bottled water company. This installment follow a delivery of tainted water to a local high school where the students are either preparing for, or preparing to ignore, prom.

The movie spends tremendous effort attempting to ingratiate its characters to the audience. The shy nerd nurses a crush on the popular girl, but she dates a neanderthal jerk. His best friend, a foul-mouthed slob that doesn’t respect anything, pushes him to break out of his shell. There’s a dumb guy! There’s a fat girl! There’s other cardboard cliches that nobody will remember!

Everything the first movie did right, this one does wrong. Where the first paid loving homage to horror cliches, this milks them mercilessly. Where the first established its tone and setting to build tension and enforce isolation, this is scattershot and poorly explained. Where the first was disturbing and cringe-inducing while remaining elegant, this is simply gross and cheap.

Even the name is senseless, almost assuredly a holdover from an earlier (and likely more expensive) script set during Spring break. Instead, “Spring fever” is set in a high school in late Autumn.

imdb-cabin-fever-3Cabin Fever 3: Patient Zero

Horror, 91 Minutes, 2014

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This begins in a high-tech, secret research facility somewhere in the Caribbean. The lab is shrouded in darkness, so you know it’s evil. The new administrator is cleaning house to begin work on his prize: the only person yet discovered that’s immune to the flesh eating virus. Patient Zero (played by Sean Astin [IMDB]).

Meanwhile, a group of friends decide to celebrate a bachelor party on the apparently “uninhabited” island. After some “character development” (read that as: “bickering and nudity”) they inadvertently snuggle up to bio-waste from the underground lab. Events then take a decidedly bloody turn.

It’s an interesting premise, but unfortunately one that makes little sense under examination. There are no connections to the previous films at all. The move to the Caribbean is completely unexplained. Moreover, once the bachelor party story line is introduced, it’s clear that the infection hasn’t even made the news, forcing one to wonder if this is actually a sequel or some kind of reboot. It seems a shame as a very few modifications would have linked the stories neatly together.

Astin is understated, as always, and effective, as always. His story is definitely the more interesting one. It’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t take the risk to focus on him exclusively. The secondary story line provides a distraction and is competent, but remains uninspired to the end. The inevitable twist ending is, like most, convoluted and difficult to take seriously. Forgive all its flaws and you’re left with a decent straight horror flick.

imdb-cabin-fever-2016Cabin Fever

Horror, 99 Minutes, 2016

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Rather than continuing the story line laid out in the third film, the powers that be decided to toss the lot in favor of a straight remake. Perhaps the straightest remake in history.

The original script was placed on a table. It was scoured of anything humorous, nostalgic or subtle. A few of the lines were shuffled around to confuse the original character development. All this was topped off with a singularly uninspired gender swap and ever-so-slightly tweaked ending.

It feels like a high school production. A very well done high-school production, to be fair, but  lifeless and wooden. Technically well done, perhaps, but lacking the experience or skill to pull off a truly subtle, emotional story.

In a sea of needless remakes, it would be truly difficult to name a more needless remake than this. It offers nothing new and fails to top the original in every way. It serves absolutely no purpose.

Conclusion

While the original film has a lot to offer, “franchisability” doesn’t seem to be one of its gifts. The subsequent films failed to recognize what worked and suffered terribly for it. The third, at least, attempted to find a new voice within the material. It wasn’t wholly successful, yet laid a reasonable foundation for the future of the series. A foundation ultimately ignored in favor of an anemic, unnecessary reboot.

A nameless disease appearing at random is a difficult premise to carry an entire series, but surely it can support better than this? Here’s hoping that whomever owns the property learns their lesson and gives it the proper attention in the future.

Updated: October 30, 2016 — 9:45 pm

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