Take a bunch of horror clichés that have been whipped up and repackaged for the MTV generation and all you get is the rather depressing trend in post-modern, post-Scream horror movies that continue to be churned out by mainstream Hollywood.
On the other hand, take some of the most shocking horror traits and traditions of the 1970s and hand them over to an innovative young filmmaker dedicated to disturbing his audience, and you get the genuinely terrifying Cabin Fever. This startling new movie from first-time director Eli Roth has been storming across film festivals in recent months, apparently prompting a bidding war between rival distributors.
Cabin Fever depicts the grisly fate of a group of five young city dwellers who decide to spend the final days of their college vacation in a remote country log cabin. However, this rural location harbours a much more deadly threat than just the backward and barbaric locals. As the film reveals, the region’s water supply has been subjected to chemical contamination by the hapless authorities. Those unfortunate enough to drink from this source become infected by a flesh-eating virus that provokes lesions to erupt through the skin’s surface, before the onset of madness, irrational acts of violence and fatal decomposition.
With its visceral visualisation of physical decay, Cabin Fever will undoubtedly prove shocking to some viewers used to the ‘sanitised’ vision of horror that continues to dominate mainstream images of the genre. However, what makes Roth’s film truly disturbing is the lack of humanity that characters display towards the sick and infected depicted in the film. When one elderly local strays into the youngsters camp seeking medical assistance, he is first warded off with warning shots before the group set him on fire and leave his body burning in the nearby woods.
Even more shocking is the way in which the group descends into chaos after contagion takes hold within their own ranks. One young buck abandons his girlfriend and heads for the hills with a six pack, determined to sit out the plague in a cave. The remaining friends quarantine a vulnerable female member of the group in an abandoned outhouse, forcing her to slowly expire on a filthy mattress, before having her (decaying) face smashed open with a spade by one former suitor (Rider Strong).
As this brief description of Cabin Fever indicates, the film is an extremely downbeat production that is strongly reminiscent of the most nihilistic horror movies of 1970s. In his groundbreaking analysis of the genre, Robin Wood famously argued that the American horror movie of the 1970s offered a pessimistic vision of a society whose sense of humanity, sanity and legality had been fatally corrupted via exposure to events such as Vietnam war, Stateside violence and political corruption. In this sense, American horror of the seventies can be seen as the decade’s ‘feel-bad’ genre. It expressed the moral ambiguity of an era in which the American imagination had seen right and wrong, madness and sanity blurred into one another.
It’s this feeling that Roth manages to capture in his startling film. The comparison with seventies American horror is no coincidence, as scenes from Cabin Fever make clear Roth’s debt to directors such as Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and George A. Romero. The film’s depiction of amoral and lethal country bumpkins clearly echo representations found in notorious seventies productions such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Equally, the film’s focus on the mindless violence that accompanies the clash of city and country cultures is derived from Wes Craven’s controversial debut movie The Last House on the Left. The influence of the latter production on Roth’s own development is underscored by the fact that he even re-mixes David Hess’ haunting soundtrack for Last House on the Left into key scenes of Cabin Fever, while the cinematography also closely mirrors the visual style of Craven’s rape and revenge drama. Even the film’s shocking finale, where the locals round up and burn both the innocent and infected outsiders they presume are responsible for the sickness in their community is strongly reminiscent of the negative and ambivalent endings found in many notable American horror films from the seventies.
In marked opposition to the current trends in Hollywood horrors, Eli Roth has consciously rejected the self-reflexive, silly and ultimately safe brand of genre movie that has dominated the post-Scream arena. Instead, his film is a stark vision of a culture’s manifest inhumanity that is uncompromising, intense and intelligent. Cabin Fever looks set to storm British shores later this year. If you only see one horror movie this year, make sure it is this one.