When I was in high school, my favorite weekend pastime was to head over to a friend's house, grab some pizza, and watch movies until the next morning (shocking, I'm sure). On one of these nights, my friends and I entered a Hollywood Video, and left with two movies: the astonishingly bad direct-to-video horror movie Death Factory, and Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. At the time, my obsession with movies and my love of horror films were still in their formative stages. I had no idea what to expect, but Cabin Fever is bloody, clever, and off-the-wall from beginning to end -- in other words, exactly the kind of film one wants to watch in that setting.
Six years later, revisiting the film on a newly-minted Blu-Ray disc (a tie-in with the long-delayed sequel Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever), Cabin Fever is still my favorite horror movie of the decade, having been the film that propped open the genre door for me. Although the Saw series would successfully desensitize me to blood and guts, food coloring and corn syrup are easy to buy and hard to use well. Stacks of would-be independent splatter flicks just like Cabin Fever litter rental shelves and used racks, but what makes Roth's film special is not the stomach-churning prosthetics -- although they are impressive -- but his devilish desire to keep upping the ante, to keep the audience on their toes.
The story is so simple, it might as well be paint-by-numbers: Paul (Rider Strong), Karen (Jordan Ladd), Bert (James DeBello), Marcy (Cerina Vincent), and Jeff (Joey Kern) are a group of college students looking for a weekend of sex and drinking. Instead of an axe murderer with a mysterious identity or demons in the woods, however, the killer arrives in the form of a forest drifter (Arie Verveen), who crashes their campsite with his skin peeling. He's contracted a virus, a flesh-eating bacteria that turns its subjects into blood-spewing, rotting corpses within a few days of first contact. The group manages to force patient zero out of their camp (by inadvertently lighting him on fire), but it becomes clear pretty quickly that Karen's increasing nausea is a very, very bad sign.
Really, this is more than enough plot for a horror movie. Immediately, visions of impromptu amputations, the chance of a suicide, and a despairing sense of isolation jump to mind. But Cabin Fever has more up its sleeve than just scares, shepherding in genre cliché after genre gliché (guilt over the accidental killing, creepy townsfolk, rising in-group tension), only to turn each one on its head with Roth's bizarre sense of humor. Any horror fan has seen one or two movies with weird locals, but there's the movie's infamous make-or-break moment where the shopkeeper's quiet, probably brain-damaged kid named Dennis, always siting on the front porch of the local grocery store, turns to a desperate Burt, and...well, something unusual happens (take note: Bert is just confused). Dennis is just one of the movie's oddball side characters; the funniest one is Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), a blissfully nerdy junior officer who claims he's on the lookout for Paul and his friends. "You're the party man!" he grins reassuringly, when Paul requests a tow truck. "What do I look like, an idiot? You're my number one priority."
This sideshow of loony supporting characters is anchored to reality by the five lead performances. All of them are pretty good, but Bert is the movie's secret weapon. Not only does DeBello play a dumb asshole with hilarious accuracy (one of his very first scenes has him taking a BB gun and heading out to kill squirrels "'cause they're gay"), but he still reacts to the spreading disease in believable ways that illustrate where rational thought takes over from his dickish impulses. (And maybe I'm alone, but he even remains kind of likable, despite all the terrible things he does, because DeBello has a big, mischievous smile on his face that must've rivaled Roth's.) Kern's Jeff comes in second: a glib, less-sympathetic, more paranoid version of Burt, who has the opposite reaction to the threat of a painful, gruesome death.
Since 2003, Eli Roth has only directed five major projects: Cabin Fever, two Hostels, the phenomenal Thanksgiving trailer for the film Grindhouse, and Nation's Pride, the Nazi propaganda movie in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The Hostel films seem to have stirred up a hatred for Roth (mainly among the same people who would use the moronic term "torture porn" to describe them). Some of this badmouthing has spread to Cabin Fever, but it's unjustified. He capably balances the skin-crawling terror of the flesh-eating virus with weirder elements (like a campfire story about a bowling alley). He plays by the rules, throwing in plenty of nudity and buckets of blood, but the subtler moments are even better. Lots of horror films have a moment, a full-body, cold-sweat realization that a character has crossed some fatal line -- in short, an "oh s--- moment" -- and the one Roth serves up in Cabin Fever, in which Strong's character goes to investigate the drinking water, is perfectly shot, heart-stoppingly sudden, and completely damning, summed up elegantly in a single sound effect. Not only is it shocking and disturbing, but Roth squeezes some pitch-black comedy out as well; much of the film is funny, ranging from subtle to absurd. My personal highlight is the latter, coming near the end and involving a harmonica and the unlucky guy playing it.
Not only is it exhilarating to watch Cabin Fever start with several shopworn ideas and then run as far in the opposite direction as it possibly can, but the movie is a true crowd-pleaser, eliciting huge laughs, groans, and shivers with equal effectiveness. Horror fans get used to seeing the same things multiple times, because the genre has a tendency to repeat itself ad nauseum, and even Roth can't resist a few nods to classics like Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Yet Cabin Fever is (no pun intended) a gutsy movie, one that does weird, bizarrely funny things with a mind towards all of the unsuspecting genre fans who will stumble upon the film late at night, with a bunch of unsuspecting friends, and have a blast.
The Unrated Director's Cut
The R-rated theatrical cut of Cabin Fever ran 92 minutes, whereas this version runs 98. Since I've sung the praises of Cabin Fever for years now, I can't say that the material presented in this director's cut is necessary to the viewer's enjoyment, but it is interesting. The changes I liked included an additional shot that shows a little more of Bert's sense of responsibility, more of the three townsfolk who go up to the cabin (including an extremely violent payoff shot that I've sorely missed all of these years, and a cool visual homage to Evil Dead II), and a much smoother edit of the movie's conclusion, which always struck me as unusually abrupt in the original version. The only addition I didn't like is a single shot of Jeff near the beginning of the third act; in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I'll say I preferred the timing of the theatrical cut's reveal.
The Blu-Ray artwork for Cabin Fever is 95% identical to cover for the age-old DVD, aside from the reduced size and the presence of the phrase "Unrated Director's Cut" on the spine and the front cover above the title. It's okay, though, because the original artwork is pretty damn good, with a vivid, black-and-blood-red skull formed by front of the cabin and silhouettes of trees. The case is a Blu-Ray Viva Elite "eco-box" design, and there is no insert accompanying the disc.
The Video and Audio
Cabin Fever was shot independently, so I had my concerns about how good the Blu-Ray presentation of the film could actually look. The answer: very good, but not great. This 2.35:1 1080p AVC presentation contains a noticeable amount of additional detail and clarity, and the colors really pop, especially the deep, rich blacks. You can actually see someone who's meant to be dead breathing in high definition! There's also a nice sheen of film grain, which gets thicker during night scenes and close-ups. However, there's a distinct lack of depth in the image, which takes away a noticeable measure of the "high-definition pop" that many viewers expect in their Blu-Ray transfers. All in all, it's definitely a step up over the DVD, and as of the moment, the Blu-Ray is the only way to get the unrated director's cut, so fans of the movie will want to pick up the new disc, but anyone who only "likes" Cabin Fever can probably be satisfied with their DVDs.
Cabin Fever also has a great score by Nathan Barr (with assistance from longtime David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti), and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track on this disc faithfully recreates the tension of Barr's string orchestra. Roth also went crazy with the squishing and squelching, which are hilariously vivid in this HD mix. There's nothing going on in the movie that really activates the movie's surrounds, at least not in the same way, say, an action movie would, but the score and splatter still sound great, and the dialogue is crisp and clear. Like the picture, it doesn't exactly leap at you, but it sounded richer and fuller than my memory of the DVD's 5.1 track, so I suppose it's an upgrade. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The original Cabin Fever DVD had a massive five commentary tracks (Roth, Roth and technical crew, Roth and the male cast, Roth and the female cast, and a whole extra track for additional comments by Rider Strong), but despite 460 minutes of existing commentary, Roth, Strong, Ladd, Vincent and Kern have all come back to record a whole new audio commentary for this Blu-Ray release. Some of the tracks on the original release are excellent, and this one is no slouch, but it's merely "good" in comparison. Roth talks at length about the changes made to the picture, and the actors talk about the reception of the film over the years, and any of the amusing stories they've accumulated in the years since making it. The nitpicks I have: predictably, given the number of tracks in existence, there is some overlap (although Roth has a good memory, and mostly keeps it to a minimum), James DeBello's belligerent personality is missed, and I get the aggravating sense that large chunks have been edited out right at the beginning, probably for esoteric legal reasons.
The other new extra is two more episodes of "The Rotten Fruit", a series of crude, stop-motion comedy shorts about a band made up of talking fruit (the most popular band in the world). The new episodes are cleverly called "Episode 2" (2:56) and "Episode 4" (3:02). The original "Rotten Fruit" shorts were kinda amusing, in a student-y way, but I can see why these two were left off the original DVD. I also feel like these two new shorts are awfully quiet in comparison to the others, and the sound occasionally cut out when I watched them.
UPDATE (02/16/10): Ha. Turns out they're "awfully quiet" for a reason: they're missing a whole channel's worth of audio, according to Eli Roth (via his official Twitter feed). The director says the audio can be fixed with a BD-Live update on internet-connected players.
Holdovers from the DVD release include 3 "Rotten Fruit" episodes ("Battle of the Bands", "Snackster", and "Room Service", which run 5:25, 3:39, and 3:18), a predictable-but-still-amusing "Family Friendly Version" (1:13), an increasingly entertaining making-of featurette called "Beneath the Skin: The Making of Cabin Fever" (28:57), and a silly kung-fu reel entitled "Pancakes!" (1:45).
Lastly, the film's awesome original theatrical trailer ("Catch It!") is also included, and the disc opens with a promo for Lionsgate Horror on Blu-Ray (including Requiem For a Dream!). Clicking on "Also From Lionsgate" in the Special Features section takes you to the same Horror promo.
My only complaint about the package that Lionsgate has whipped up here is all the missing content. Why not include the theatrical cut via seamless branching and toss on all five of the movie's audio commentaries? It's hard to believe the amount of work required would have outweighed the payoff in terms of increasing the Blu-Ray's value. Hell, the differences between the Unrated and the Rated are minor enough that they really could've just stretched out the occasional gap of silence on the theatrical commentaries and included them over the UDC. I guess it's possible that Roth didn't want to devalue the DVD with the release of the Blu-Ray, but I'd still have preferred to see that content included on this disc. Also absent: the feature-length gag "Chick-O-Vision", which used a special subtitle track to put a giant pair of "hands" over the screen whenever something scary happens. Zing. On the DVD, it was worth a chuckle, but it's no big loss.
Haters be damned. I love Cabin Fever. This Blu-Ray offers some noticeable but potentially marginal updates to the picture quality, and a reasonably interesting (but not wildly different) new cut of the movie. It's not a home run -- the original cut via branching and the previous five audio commentaries would have been a massive increase in value -- but this disc is still highly recommended to any fans who love the film as much as I do (especially given the low price Lionsgate usually offers its Blu-Rays at). Just make sure to keep your DVDs!
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