Of the recent movies inspired by brutal 1970s horror flicks like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Last House on the Left," first-time director/screenwriter Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever" is arguably the best. It's undoubtedly superior to Rob Zombie's ill-conceived "House of 1,000 Corpses."
It starts with five friends, fresh out of college and on a getaway to a rural, woodland cabin. The friends fall into the usual categories:
The Dumb Jock: Bert, played by James DeBello. Bert's continual stupidity screams out for a bloody and painful demise, which cannot come soon enough. Everything bad that happens is his fault, and everyone knows it.
Now, while these stock characters from slasher-flick central casting may not sound promising, Roth doesn't leave them at that. Once he gets them into the woods, he subjects them to two different kinds of terror. First, he has them come upon the favorite baddies of most '70s horror films, heavily armed and morbidly inbred hillbillies. Then he hits them with a modern threat: a flesh-eating disease, which reduces everyone who contracts it to a bloody, wasting mess.
And a funny thing happens to the friends under pressure. Each becomes obsessed with self-preservation, even the Nice Guy. Sure, he tries to do the right thing, but how many chances is he going to take when there are disease-ridden strangers wandering around and bleeding on everything? Better to burn the walking corpses now and worry about the cops later. Not since the original "Night of the Living Dead" has there been such a collection of hard-nosed survivalists.
Speaking of the cops, "Cabin Fever" isn't without its lighthearted moments, in a strange "Twin Peaks" sort of way, made all the stranger by music from "Twin Peaks" composer Angelo Badalamenti. When the law does arrive, it's in the unhelpful form of Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), who is more interested in finding a good party than in searching the woods for missing persons. Even a blood-soaked sport utility vehicle is nothing for him to get worked up about.
But these occasional forays into the absurd don't derail "Cabin Fever." Instead, they set up a darkly humorous final act.
Before that, however, Roth showers his actors in blood and gore. For those of us who grew up with the films of Tobe Hooper and George Romero, it's almost like a return to the good old days after enduring a decade of bland slasher movies that teased but never delivered. You can feel the meddling influence of overprotective Baby Boomer parents starting to wane.
Roth and cinematographer Scott Kevan make the most of their outdoor locations, and "Cabin Fever" always feels like a movie, rather than some student filmmaker's class project or a music video — yes, Rob Zombie, I'm thinking of you. It's an accomplished debut film and, hopefully, is an indication of what we can expect from Roth in the future.
Speaking of that, Roth's next project is the psychological horror film "The Box," based on a story by "Twilight Zone" writer Richard Matheson.