Cabin Fever and the Next Wave of Kentucky Fried Horror!

By Wil Forbis
October 16th, 2003

Is "Cabin Fever" the greatest horror film ever made?

In a word: no. But it's still pretty damn good. And, dare I say it, important. Maybe not as important as finding out what happened to Saddam's WMDs or tracking down nude jpegs of Kelly Clarkson, but definitely more important than whether Ben broke up with Jennifer or what's happening in North Korea. Because "Cabin Fever" represents a shift in the genre of horror that could have ramifications for years to come. As I've mentioned before, during the past few years we've seen a move away from teenage slasher films ("Scream," "I Know What You Did Last Summer") to intellectual supernatural films that hark back to 70's classics like "The Amityville Horror" and "The Exorcist." (Best examples of the current batch: "The Others" and "The Ring." Worst: "Fear Dot Com" and "Darkness Falls.") "Cabin Fever" goes back to another 70's archetype: the gritty, low budget "alone in the woods" film as epitomized by "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Motel Hell," "Last House on the Left" and "The Evil Dead." ("Deliverance" might stand as a mainstream example.) With flicks like the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake and "House of the Dead" on their way, it's a genre that may be clawing its way out of the dirt. But more on that later.

"Cabin Fever's" plot is clever but clunky. The obligatory crew of five attractive young protagonists (including one played by Rider Strong, the "best friend" character from "Boy Meets World.") head off into the woods for a week-long getaway of sex, drinking, sex, pot-smoking and sex.  Rider's character, Paul, a shy timid cat (Will the events of the movie harden him into a take-no-guff ass kicker. You bet your Bruce Campbell!) seems intent on pursuing the doveish, Karen  (Jordan Ladd), a young lady who broadcasts the confusing signals of attraction that all women in their 20's are experts at transmitting. But on the very first night of their vacation the gang are accosted by a haggard, bleeding transient who is obviously in the throes of a terrible sickness. Being the group of wholesome American youths that they are, the kids respond by slamming the door in his face. The bum then tries to steal their truck, but just ends up vomiting blood onto the interior. They try to scare him off but only manage to - D'oh! - set the guy on fire and watch as his immolating form flees into the depths of the forest.

With the set up in place, the question becomes, "Who will get sick first?" In scene that will make you think twice about feeling up your girlfriend, Paul discovers that Karen has developed early symptoms. The group try and protect themselves by banishing her to a nearby shed but only the foolish would see this maneuver as adequate protection. One by one, the rest of them start to show the traits of the virus -  hemoptysis (coughing blood), gaping open sores, and a quick slide into dementia. (The disease is never identified, but seems to be of the gut-liquidifying Eboli variety.) Cut off from communication with the civilized world (Did I mention their cell phones don't work and the truck operates sparingly? Did I really need to?) the kids manage to only irritate (and infect) the hillbilly locals who eventually came after them guns blazing. From there the movie moves towards a darkly comic climax perfectly in line with the 70's horror flicks from which it draws its inspiration.

Obviously, none of this is Shakespeare, but "Cabin Fever" is on relatively unexplored territory by presenting itself as a genre film without a real antagonist. (The "Final Destination" films, which I've raved about, used a similar premise.) There's no machete waving madman or psychopathic poltergeist, just a microscopic germ and the dark nature of man that shows up especially strong when the shit hits the fan. This lends a certain unpredictability to the plot, since we cannot just assume that the film will end with a well bosomed teenager duking it out with the forces of evil. (See the recent "Freddy vs. Jason" for that.)

It was while watching "Cabin Fever" that I realized that this particular concept - the low budget, "alone in the woods" horror film - really is a definitive sub-genre, and one due for a revival. (You could probably argue that one has been under way for several years now. ever since a nickle and dime film called "The Blair Witch Project" burst onto the scene.) I've affectionately named this genus of genre films "Kentucky Fried Horror" and you will sound hip and cutting edge if you insert the phrase as often as possible into your conversation. But what makes a film, "Kentucky Fried Horror," as opposed to "just another stupid horror flick?" In both "Cabin Fever" and other classics of the genre, there are a few attributes that stand out:

The Setting:
The woods. Hey, the woods are fucking scary! I spent most of my childhood summers living in the backwoods near Polson, Montana, and there's nothing freakier than lying in bed at night hearing the snapping twigs and eerie animals moans in the darkness of the forest. Sure, it could be a chipmunk, it's probably a chipmunk, but there's that minuscule possibility that instead of a chipmunk it's a deranged serial killer with razor sharp hooks for hands*. I'm quite willing to confess that I was such a pussy as a kid that my Dad had to sit next to my bed in order for me to fall asleep.

* I actually recall one night one in my teenage years in Montana when we were walking around at night having actually just heard that a insane murderer had escaped from a mental institution about 90 miles north. He wandered back in the next day - apparently he'd just wanted some fresh air.

The People:
Another frightening facet of the rural landscape is the freaks who live there. Most of us moviegoers are genteel urbanites and we rightly suspect all country folk of being gimping inbreds who would pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of Pam Anderson smashed out on their couch if they heard the baying of a nearby swine. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Motel Hell" both played off this fear brilliantly. "Cabin Fever" makes clever use of it as well. Early on in the movie, Paul upsets an androgynous and seemingly mute pre-teen named Dennis who responds by biting him. Robert Harris portrays a wacky, Santa Claus-like shopkeeper with a freakishly effeminent manner. The rest of the country cast are the usual collection of gap toothed, mullet wearing hillbillys who all share the same aunt and mother.

The Budget:
 Horror films tend to be made by young filmmakers short on experience (and money) but long on enthusiasm and a willingness to push the envelope. What's a better setting to get your cinematic feet wet than the backwoods of America
? There's no need for permits, very few gawkers and you don't have to control car and foot traffic the way you do with films in an urban environment. This incentive enticed a young Tobe Hooper to shoot "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and I suspect the appeal was not lost on "Cabin Fever's" director Eli Roth, a first timer himself. (Of course, "Cabin Fever's" budget, like most nationally releases, is probably closer to the GNP of a South American nation that the $140,000 Hooper spent to make the original ".Chainsaw." Nonetheless, it ain't no "Terminator 3.")

There's something else that stands out about Kentucky Fried Horror: gore. Classic flicks like "Texas Chainsaw." and "Evil Dead" (and their corresponding sequels) were more than willing to take things up a notch in regards to splattering blood and severed intestines. Cabin Fever ain't afraid to let loose a little splatter either. I'm a sucker for scenes where an established character loses their face* - there's something about the loss of identity that really gets me - and "Cabin Fever" has just such a nailbiter. The other death scenes also fare well, featuring a visceral kind of horror that assumably comes close to what it really like to die from an Eboli-like disease.

* "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" did wonders with this concept.

The Director as the Antagonist:
In most films, be they horror, adventure or romance, you get the impression that the director is on of the side of the movie's protagonists. Not so with Kentucky Fried Horror. In Tobe Hooper's original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the camera seems apolitical, and takes only muted interest when one of the screaming characters is affixed to a meathook. In the "Evil Dead" films, especially Part II, you get the distinct feeling that director Sam Raimi is taking great delight in pummeling his lead character, Ash (Bruce Campbell.) In "Cabin Fever", Roth also seems to be working the situation against his characters, as their attempts to escape encounter one roadblock after another.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I could be making much ado about nothing. Maybe we'll see a couple of horror flicks in woodsy settings and then the genre will go back to zombies or giant lizards for a while. But I do think "Cabin Fever" has all the earmarks of a film that will be shown at midnite movie screenings for years to come. If you consider yourself any kind of horror buff, you should check it out.

One final point before I get going. I've seen several reviewers, most notably Roger Ebert, make negative comments about the character of Deputy Winston, played by Guiseppe Andrews. I was a bit confused with the appearance of this character. He seemed so over the top goofy I was sure that he couldn't  be a real police officer. But, no, turns out he's supposed to be a regular backwoods cop who spent his teenage years huffing gas. (Bringing to mind Martin Kove's dumbbell cop in Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left.") There's no denying, from a structural viewpoint, Deputy Winston does terrible damage to the story, but he's damn fascinating to watch. I can't tell if Guiseppe Andrews should get an Oscar or be banned from acting forever, but it's an unforgettable performance, with reams of stoner banter ("Hey party man, just keep on partying. You're the party man.") that will be sampled across the internet for years.


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