The plot is familiar to anyone who has seen movies like Friday the 13th or Halloween. In an environment empty of reassuring authority figures like parents or police departments, a clique of friends in their late teens to early twenties face an implacable menace that dispatches them, one by one, in an especially grisly manner. It’s a device that’s so commonly used that it has acquired the formalism of a Kabuki play – the actors might as well wear stylized masks indicating The Average Guy, The Pretty Virgin, The Conceited Jerk, or The Slob. In Cabin Fever, the sacrificial victims are five college students who decide to celebrate graduation by renting a remote cabin in the North Carolina mountains where they can have sex, drink beer and smoke dope to their hearts’ content.
It’s the nature of the menace that helps to set Cabin Fever a cut above the genre to which it pays homage, and makes it intriguing rather than merely predictable. The characters are threatened not by some supernaturally powerful killer hidden behind a hockey-mask/burn scars/maniacal grin, but by a disease. Narcotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh eating virus, comes knocking on their cabin door in the form of a local hermit, deathly sick and pleading for help, his skin a mass of blood. His horrifying appearance and one character’s guilty secret touch off a panic that rapidly escalates into mob violence and murder.
From then on, love, friendship, and empathy rot along with the skin of the disease’s victims. The first student to come down with the sickness is escorted out of the cabin and locked in a tool shed while her erstwhile friends try to figure out a means of escape that won’t involve answering embarrassing questions about the hermit.
They must contend with a grotesque illness, their own hysteria and two cardinal sins of youth — snap judgements and an inability to actually pick up on clues when they are offered. That cute, fey old shopkeeper with the Santa Claus beard might be just an example of local color, or he might be a violent racist – but either way he has a friendly warning to offer that’s probably worth hearing. That lady screaming curses at a pig she just eviscerated might be crazy – or she might have an understandable reason for being angry that’s germane to what’s happening back at the cabin. The students, of course, don’t pause long enough to find out, too freaked out by the shopkeeper’s sinister use of the "N" word and the pig lady’s violence to listen carefully.
There are some logical holes in the film, but the onset of the disease is depicted with merciless consistency. The audience, unlike most of the characters, knows how it is spread, and much of the tension lies in the viewers’ wincing awareness of who is most likely to be the next victim. In one especially gruesome moment, the horror lies as much in the certainty of infection as it does in the Grand Guignol that’s unfolding on the screen.
This film is not for everyone. Hypochondriacs and people with weak stomachs should stay away. Occasionally director Eli Roth winks a little too obviously at his audience while paying homage to past films. (One sequence is so plainly lifted from another classic horror flick that its predictable outcome annoys rather than amuses.) But it has a mordantly witty screenplay by Randy Pearlstein and Eli Roth and fine performances by Rider Strong as Paul (The Average Guy), James DeBello as Bert (The Slob), and Arie Verveen as the Hermit.
Cabin Fever is a well-crafted, truly nasty piece of work with a deceptively innocent looking final scene that will make many in the audience shudder. For horror aficionados there can be no higher praise.