HORROR IN HOTPANTS: CABIN FEVER AND THE REINVENTION OF SEVENTIES AMERICAN HORROR
There aren’t many new movies that get Cult Film Archive director Xavier Mendik overexcited. But having just seen Eli Roth’s debut film Cabin Fever, he remains convinced that the film is one of the most terrifying, original and brilliantly executed horror movies to emerge since the 1970s. In an exclusive interview with the film’s director, Xavier explains why the horror genre might have found its new movie master in the figure of Eli Roth.
Xavier Mendik: Cabin Fever seems to be proving a massive hit with film festival audiences. Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
Eli Roth: The original inspiration for Cabin Fever came from me reading a Fangoria article on The Evil Dead when I was around fourteen or fifteen. I was struck by the fact that Sam Raimi made this movie when he was just twenty-one for around three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. So that idea of what you could do with the horror genre on a limited budget really influenced me. Later, when I went to film school at NYU it occurred to me that all of my favourite movies were horror films that were made for under half a million dollars. I’m talking about films like Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th and so on. From that point on it became my life long dream to make a horror movie and more importantly, to make a horror movie that had as much intensity and intelligence as the filmmakers I respected.
How useful was the NYU route in helping you achieve this ambition?
Very useful, because when I was at film school I worked on a lot of productions and I learned how to budget and schedule and how to line produce. All of these skills were preparing me to go and shoot my own low-budget, balls-to-the-wall horror movie.
How easy was Cabin Fever to produce?
Well, by the time I had graduated film school in 1994 horror had become a dead genre. People thought I was crazy for wanting to make a horror movie. This was because the Rambo movies of the 1980s and the Freddy sequels of the same era had turned the idea of what violence and horror represent into a joke. Unlike seventies horror which was about genuinely scaring an audience, after 1985 it became reduced to what weapon can we use to kill someone this time? In this respect I do think there is a parallel between the popularity of the gung-ho Schwarzenegger films like Commando and the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. This is because both reduced violence and horror to nothing more than parody and punch lines. So by the end of the decade, horror had literally become a joke. The term I often use to describe this effect is "gore-porno", where the true impact of horror is drained away and the motive for these movies becomes just a way of fast-forwarding from one death to the next.
It’s interesting that you point out the ways in which 80s horror changed to be more comical and less threatening. Critics like Robin Wood have argued that 80s American cinema is very Reaganite in the way in which it creates a clean split between right and wrong, good and evil.
Absolutely, the movies that really got to me like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing are really the movies where your friend may suddenly turn on you and in order to survive you have to kill your closest companion. That idea terrified me. But towards the mid to later 1980s, this threat was reduced to a formula of the bad guys verses the good guys. These were films that stopped writing characters and relied on stereotypes like the ‘fat guy’ and ‘the cool guy’ and so on.
It seems to be the case that in the seventies a lot of the genre directors seemed to tap into the social turmoil of the era, only to be recuperated, watered down or bought out in later decades.
When I was writing this movie I kept a statement in front of me that read that "All of my heroes have failed me." What I meant by that is that all the best horror directors either left the genre, or the ones that remained really seemed to lose their direction. It’s really depressing to see so many of my favourite directors from the seventies making movies that are so out of touch with anything that is scary or that modern audiences can relate to. That is why someone like David Lynch is so amazing, because he has remained true to his vision and he continues to make movies that are terrifying in a totally different way.
In that case, why do you feel seventies horror was so startling and original?
It goes back to what you just said about tapping into the problems of the period. What was so important about 1970s horror was the fact that the horrors of real life provided the motivation its most terrifying and controversial films. People were switching on their televisions and watching documentary footage of Vietnam, or images of riots at home and the destructive nature of what was going on at the time was very prevalent in their minds. That’s why so many of the great horror movies from the era like Last House on the Left employed that grainy 16mm look, because it was so reminiscent of the war footage that people were watching at the time. At the core of these films was always the most basic and disturbing question: what is scary? There was never any jokes or humour in these movies because there was nothing funny about Vietnam, there was nothing funny about race riots, and there was nothing funny about death or violence.
I think the issue of violence in seventies American horror that you raise is interesting. Critics such as Robin Wood argued that these films disturb because they lack humanity, once again reflecting the lawless period from which they emerged.
That’s very interesting. I talked this issue through with David Hess a great deal. David Hess and Wes Craven were really making an anti-war protest movie when they made Last House on the Left and I think that Hess’ music really reflects that. Those songs talking about the road leading to nowhere indicates the extent to which there was a real sense of disillusionment going on and you see it in all of those films.
One of the things that I found most disturbing about Cabin Fever is the way in which the group falls apart after the infection takes hold among their members. The impact of this was enhanced by the very interesting way in which you play characters against type, as exemplified by the hero who begins to go on a rampage in the closing scenes.
Well, what I wanted to do with Cabin Fever was to lay out the ‘expected’ horror conventions and then play around with them. So the audience thinks "OK, she’s the virgin, she’s not going to get it", when in fact she dies first. Then, they might think "This guy’s the idiot one", but he turns out to be the most responsible one in group, while the so-called hero totally falls apart and goes on a killing spree. I think that is what can be interesting about the horror movie, it allows you to take characters and push them to their extremes.
What was also disturbing about Cabin Fever was the way it draws on the whole city/country divide that continues to be a central aspect of the American imagination.
I think that’s because this is a divide that is very real one, not just the reserve of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A great deal of the excessive and anti-social behaviour of the locals depicted in Cabin Fever reflected the actual experiences we had when we were making the movie. For instance, in the film, when the group start to get sick and they appeal to the locals in vain for medical assistance, this is very much a reflection of what happened to us when we were shooting the movie. During the first week of filming, myself and one of my actresses got really, really sick. So we went to the local hospital for assistance. Unfortunately, the only local hospital is more of a clinic, so there were no doctors. We waited and waited there and eventually we got seen by a "D.A." or Doctor’s Assistant, which was a new one on me! They proceeded to give us medications that were totally off the wall for the chest infections that we had, that’s how backward this place was!
Many of the most significant horror movies of the seventies dealt with the issue of racism, most notably the work of George A. Romero, as well as John Russo’s disturbing film Midnight. You seemed to capture much of that ‘white barbarity’ with Cabin Fever. Not only by the actions and expressions of the locals but in the end of the film when the infected hero stumbles out onto the highway looking as though he has been tarred in a racist attack. Were you consciously trying to explore the theme of racial violence with Cabin Fever?
Absolutely. Within America, everyone knows that there are parts of the county that you just don’t go to – especially if you are black or Jewish. What is so scary is these places are for real, not just the creations of backwoods movies like Deliverance. And these people are pissed that they lost the civil war, for them its not over. I mean we had one local crew member whose father turned out to be the head of the North Carolina Klu Klux Klan. This guy turned up to help out with construction and what was so shocking was not only how reactionary some of these people, but how their rhetoric was just accepted as truth. I mean, we found the rebel flag everywhere and when you questioned some of the people about how this could be offensive to black people in the area, they would come out with racist comments that would just make your skin crawl. This is why I made some references to this in the actual dialogue of the movie. So this was a really, really backward and scary place.
Just to give you an example of this, the Director of Photography and I were out location scouting one day, and the farmhand who was supposed to be looking after us calls us over to his car. He gets out this homemade moonshine which has all this dirt and bugs in it, points a gun at us and just says "Drink it!" As if that wasn’t bad enough, then he spots a squirrel jumping around on a tree and he starts shooting at it! I asked him what the hell he thought he was doing and he said, "That’s good meat!" I mean this guy was taking pot-shots at his dinner! There were so many times when I was making the film that I would start to think "Fuck, we’re not in Kansas anymore!"
To use Robin Wood’s term, we seem to be talking about the ‘Return of the Repressed’ here, because these people evoke all of the social, racial and economic contradictions that are present within wider American society.
I totally agree. And what is so scary is the way in which these racist attitudes blend with an obsession with firepower in these backwoods towns. What you find is that everyone in these areas has a gun or more than one gun. We went into one guy’s house and he must have had between seventy and eighty guns. I mean, what do you need all these weapons for? Certainly not for hunting deer!
Beyond the city/country divide, another theme that Cabin Fever draws on is the theme of ecological horror with the idea that man has contaminated the water supply. Once again, this theme seemed prevalent in many seventies horrors such as The Crazies and Squirm.
Yes. I was a big fan of those movies, in particular Squirm. I think the idea of the horror behind Cabin Fever is that nobody is helping one another. This proves to be the downfall of the group. They set one guy one fire and rather than helping him they leave him to burn. When he falls into the river he contaminates the water supply even further, which then spells destruction for everyone else in the locality. For me, this is a movie that reflects the way people react to one another, particularly when they are sick. That fear of loss of control over your own body, the idea of your own decomposition is very, very real and very, very horrific.
The other thing about seventies American horror is that it had a very edgy, experimental feel to it, which you perfectly manage to capture this.
Well, I studied film analysis at NYU, which helped me with this movie a great deal. Structurally, I broke down The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead and The Thing are reformulated these scenes to make Cabin Fever. I guess some people will see the similarity to a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not just in terms of its shots, but in terms of the group’s interactions with the locals. You can’t just replicate the intensity of these films, you still have to come up with your own way of doing things, but I just wanted to make sure that the film was not structured like a 1990s movie.
In the nineties they were all thinking about what was hip, rather than what was terrifying. Kevin Williamson reinvented the slasher movie in a very smart way, but you can only get to do that once. In Cabin Fever I was determined not to have any character say, "Wow, it’s just like we’re in a horror movie." There are plenty of references to movies like Last House on the Left and The Evil Dead in the film without having to overload the dialogue with them as well. This was part of the problem with many of those 1990s horror movies: they were too irony-based. I think that this style of self-referential humour has begun to detract from what is scary and it’s starting to get very dated, very quickly. With Cabin Fever I really wanted to make a movie that would hold up and that audiences would be able to watch twenty-five years from now.
To conclude, horror cinema always seems to reflect what is going on in wider American society. After 9/11 do you think we are going to see an Osama Bin Leatherface?
Well this is certainly horror territory. Yes, I would think that it’s only a matter of time before someone makes a terrorist horror movie. In fact, I was shocked that while I was making this movie about a virus polluting the water supply in this rural town, the whole country shuts down its reservoirs because of fears about a mass terrorist poisoning. I don’t know how that happened, but horror cinema always connects to the fears and concerns that we have in real life.
I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Eli Roth for his courtesy and enthusiasm throughout this interview. I would also like to thank Christoph Foque, Dirk Van Extergem, Thibaut Dopchie, Marie-France Dupagne and all the staff at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film for their assistance and hospitality during the Cult Film Archive’s 2003 visit.