Written by: Randy Pearlstein
Directed by: Travis Z.
Starring: Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario, and Samuel Davis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The fever is back.
While watching what turned out to be this excessively pointless remake of Cabin Fever, only one word swirled through my head: “why?” It’s not that I question why anyone would remake this film (as much as I love Eli Roth’s original, it’s hardly a sacred text) but rather why anyone would remake it in this fashion. As the story goes, the franchise producers decided to drop plans for a fourth film in favor of simply redoing the original—and by “redoing,” I mean just that. Shot from virtually the exact same script as the original, it’s practically the exact same film, which is pretty absurd considering the premise. “Friends go to the woods and contract a flesh-eating virus” is a pretty wide-open premise, so why hew so closely to Roth’s movie down to the letter? It’s a setup that practically invites you to go wild, not play it safe—especially since Roth himself certainly used it as a platform to announce himself as one of the genre’s enfants terribles.
On the other hand, this redux doesn’t announce much of anything beyond its slavish reverence to his source material. We open with the same hermit stumbling upon his mangled dog, its flesh having rotted from the mysterious disease that will soon infect a quintet of college students. Their names you already know because they’re the same as the original: Paul (Samuel Davis) is the “nice guy” looking to nail longtime friend Karen (Gage Golightly), while Jeff (Matthew Daddario) is an entitled prick whose girlfriend Marcy (Nadine Crocker) has come along for the ride. Bert (Dustin Ingram) is still the goofball fifth wheel, though this version of the character gets to bitch about not being able to play Grand Theft Auto V due to lack of Wi-Fi. The same dynamics play out as they encounter the same bizarre locals and deal with the same gory fallout from the virus in a bout of cinematic déjà vu.
Had newcomer director Travis Z. found some way to make all this retreading interesting, the approach might be justified. However, he does the exact opposite by stripping away all the personality that made Cabin Fever what it was. Everyone likely recalls the original for its gore (which, at the time, was positively shocking to see in theaters), but what they really remember are the outrageous moments and eccentric flourishes. Nobody thinks about Cabin Fever without immediately picturing that bastard redneck kid Dennis breaking out into kung-fu and screaming about pancakes. Most of this (including, yes, Dennis) is paid lip service in the remake, but it feels completely forced in by expectations; what’s more, the sparse weird moments that make the cut are toned down and rushed through, almost as if someone were trying to make the most generic, bland version of Cabin Fever imaginable.
In short, this Cabin Fever just isn’t as fun as the original. It’s not just that the original was a shock to the multiplex system in its outrageous gore, it’s that it was also a fucking hoot. Roth dared to make the sort of deranged splat-stick you usually had to pluck from a video store shelf. Movies like this simply weren’t the sort of thing you’d see released in a podunk town, yet there it was gloriously (if not bewilderingly) unfolding before my eyes. I knew immediately it was a movie made just for me and nearly nobody else in that auditorium. Maybe it was smart of Travis Z. not to attempt to recapture that particular lightning in a bottle, but it seems like such an odd choice to strip away nearly all of the black humor from Cabin Fever.
Since everything else is auto-piloted by the existing script, the tonal shift represents the only major decision here, and it’s just short of a total disaster. Obviously, it’s not a disaster simply because it’s a change (lord knows this movie needs ever diversion it can spare)—it’s just that it feels like someone calculated what the worst possible change could be in conjunction with keeping the same script. There’s only so much one can do to resist the fact that Cabin Fever is inherently silly—it’s almost begging for an over-the-top treatment because all of the characters are either weirdoes, assholes, or some combination of the two.
Not much can change this fact since the script still has them repeating the same dialogue and actions as their 2002 counterparts, meaning they’re an assortment of creeps, douchebags, and horndogs. The most notable casting choice is Louise Linton as Deputy Winston, now gender-swapped but just as odd, at least on the surface. Her presence feels a little more muted compared to Giuseppe Andrews’s, meaning the casting choice comes off as arbitrary, almost as if you could point to it as evidence that, hey, they tried to do something differently. Not that there needs to be any justification for casting a women, mind you—it just feels like they asked her to step into preexisting shoes without making it her own.
What’s odd is that the main cast especially eventually just kind of slide into their characterizations out of expectation. For most of the film, they’re all kind of nondescript, save perhaps for Bert, who is still sort of a loud-mouthed, rifle-toting jerk—it’s just that he’s not as much of a loud-mouthed, rifle-toting jerk, so he’s not nearly as indelible. That’s obviously the main problem with Cabin Fever: there’s an overwhelming sensation that you’re watching someone walking in another person’s footsteps in clumsy, dull fashion.
At a certain point, watching this felt like a chore, or maybe more like homework as I simply waited for it to dutifully check off the expected story beats and dialogue. Most of the (few) diversions are brief and pointless—again, for the most part, the biggest “changes” here are simply excisions, so it’s like watching a diet version of Cabin Fever with all the unseemliness removed. The original may have been junk food, but these are just empty calories.
To his credit, Travis Z. at least honors the original’s splattery legacy. He and the effects team take no shortcuts when the script calls for gore—this flesh-eating virus is just as disgustingly-realized as it was back in 2002. Granted, the shock factor is inherently lessened because, you know, we’ve seen all the gags before (it repeats everything, right down to the original’s infamous leg-shaving sequence), but it’s still gnarly and squirm-inducing all the same. For all its wrong-headedness, this version of Cabin Fever at least occasionally remembers to be a gross-out movie.
It could be my memory failing me, but the script does take a few shortcuts that results in less gore: for example, there’s no screwdriver gag (which is fine considering it was an homage to Dawn of the Dead anyway) and the hilarious hail of gunfire towards the end is toned down, both of which just feel like more wrong-headed attempts to make a more grounded version of this story. It’s like everyone involved thought audiences would take this Cabin Fever more seriously even though it practically invites comparison to the unhinged, hallucinatory original. At nearly every moment, I found myself wondering why anyone would watch this when there’s a much more interesting take that’s unafraid to embrace every opportunity to be weird.
Because love it or hate it, the original Cabin Fever is thoroughly Eli Roth’s movie: he’s felt in every frame, whether it’s via his cameo appearance or his willingness to indulge every puerile, primal instinct. If there’s one scene that really captures that, it’s the campfire story where Paul relays a traumatic childhood memory about a lunatic who hacked up a bowling alley. Where Roth actually reveled in every gory detail, allowing the sequence to climax with a severed head coming down a ball return, Travis Z. doesn’t even bother. We hear the story but never visualize it, so a sequence that once told us everything we needed to know about Eli Roth now tells us nothing about Travis Z.
Just about the only thing I’ve learned about the newcomer director here is that he has an eye for capturing atmospheric landscapes (the approach to the backwoods is scored by bars from The Shining theme, which is a nice little touch) and an obvious devotion to practical effects. You can see some chops that could make him a great director, but his version of Cabin Fever isn’t directed so much as it’s competently guided.
It’s tempting to say that every generation deserves its own Van Sant Psycho, but at least that had the air of a master filmmaker performing some kind of purposeful experiment. This just feels like opportunistic producers who ran out of ideas to keep milking their franchise. No wonder the end product feels so uninspired.
Cabin Fever is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory & IFC Midnight. Supplements include a trailer and a 10-minute making-of featurette that will make you realize that some cast members weren't even teenagers when the original film was released.
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