Moral zeal can infect the most schlocky of horror films. As Scream pointed out, the typical slasher flick kills off the promiscuous teens, but lets the "good" ones survive. Misbehavior gets harsh, grotesquely imaginative punishment.
Cabin Fever takes the idea of retribution a step further. In his writing and directing debut, Eli Roth doesn't just suggest that illicit sex is bad, but that any kind of physical contact may be lethal -- to even touch the topless hottie's nubile body might kill you. Cabin Fever's blood bath eventually splashes out of control, but the film takes advantage of its nasty sense of humor and the paranoid mood it builds by degrees.
The credits alone make you feel queasy, as a virginal white background becomes streaked dark, unhealthy colors, like a dairy product going bad. Afterward we accompany five college students on vacation: Jeff (Joey Kern) the pre-law snob; Marcy (Cerina Vincent), the slutty brunette; Bert (James DeBello), the party animal; Karen (Jordan Ladd), the nice blonde; and Paul (Rider Strong), the quiet, sensitive one.
They've rented a remote mountain cabin for a week apparently in Deliverance country, where a general store reveals that pleasant appearances can mislead. A tousled boy on the porch bites one of the students without warning. Inside, the old, kindly proprietor gabs about his wares. One student holds up a jar and asks, "What's the fox piss for?" "That's for fox season," the owner replies. Another asks, "What's that rifle for?" "That's for niggers," the owner answers, turning rural quaintness into bigoted menace.
Cabin Fever takes pot-shots at country folk, but doesn't like the self-absorbed students any better. After they arrive at the cabin, Roth cuts back and forth between Jeff and Marcy's vacation-inaugurating sex act and Bert shooting at squirrels and pissing in the woods.
Their campfire ghost stories take an unnerving turn when a stranger arrives at their door, his skin virtually liquefying due to a flesh-eating virus. The campers waver between sympathy and revulsion for him, but eventually drive him away with a rifle, a baseball bat and a makeshift torch. Afterward, one of the girls feels remorse and deadpans: "He came for our help. We set him on fire!"
Realizing that they may be in a viral hot zone, the students not surprisingly want to leave, but Murphy's Law wickedly conspires against them. Their car suffers damage, they can't get a cell phone signal, and their closest neighbor is a high-strung butcher related to their sickly assailant. They even get held at bay by a vicious, infected dog whose red-tinted point-of-view shots evoke the steadicam technique from The Evil Dead.
Worst of all, the drinking water gets contaminated. One of the students contracts the illness and is quarantined in a squalid tool shed by the others, who become increasingly germ-phobic and mistrustful. The couple that couldn't keep their hands off each other now fear the slightest touch. Roth pours on buckets of blood but also offers some subtle foreshadowing, like the way Bert, who played hunter early on, finds himself hunted later on.
In the film's last 15 minutes, the plot falls apart even more than the protagonists. Roth piles on so many shocks and jokes, so many tentative ideas and false endings, that he kills the mood he so impressively cultivated.
Roth mostly proves himself an attentive student of early Sam Raimi and David Cronenberg films and crafts a tale that works as a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease as well as fears of STDs taken to insane lengths. Cabin Fever lacks the innovation of recent scary movies like The Blair Witch Project or 28 Days Later, and its mix of humor and horror runs too hot and cold. But Roth proves to be no slouch at making your skin crawl.