Uncertain whether to go for straight suspense or gross-out effects, genre in-joking or schlock cinema-of-parodic-excess, Eli Roth’s backwoods horror opus “Cabin Fever” seldom sticks with any one tactic long enough to lend focus to this tale of a flesh-eating virus wreaking havoc on collegiate hot bods. Buffs might find some amusement here, but scattershot result is likely to irk mainstream horror auds, suggesting Lions Gate pickup is better suited to rental rather than theatrical markets, which it’s currently skedded to hit Sept. 12 — though home viewing won’t flatter the widescreen lensing which reps pic’s best aspect.
A woodsman (Arie Verveen) discovers his trusty dog has been eaten inside out by some nasty fungus or other. Cut to carload of generically loud, crass and nubile college kids heading that-a-way for a week of heavy partying at a rental cabin. Quintet is comprised of Paul (Rider Strong) and Karen (Jordan Ladd), the Nice Girl and Guy too shy to admit their mutual attraction; paired horndoggies Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Jeff (Joey Kern); and Bert (James DeBello), the chunky, noxious party dude. They stop long enough at the last outpost’s general store to establish the locals in these parts (pic primarily was filmed in North Carolina) are a little on the inbred side of “quaint.” No matter, since group’s digs are well isolated from such yokels.
As they settle in, Bert stumbles across the woodsman, by now badly afflicted by the skin-munching virus. Bert promises he’ll call an ambulance, but for no obvious reason chooses neither to do this nor to inform his mates of the disturbing encounter. Thus all get a big surprise when the bloody mess of a man turns up at their cabin door that night. Instead of helping, they try beating him away from the premises (disabling their own vehicle in the process), then for good measure set the poor schmuck on fire. (This occasions one of pic’s better lines: “The rain’ll put him out.”)
Unbeknownst to the youths, the man drops dead in the local reservoir, where he’ll infect entire area’s water supply. First to fall sick is Karen, whose paranoiac “friends” quarantine her in the barn, then make rather half-hearted attempts to reach outside help. Increasingly disheveled final reels throw any remaining character/story logic to the wind.
A dedicatedly over-the-top, gorily comic approach a la Sam Raimi’s first two “Evil Dead” pics would have been fine. But rather than finding one unifying tone, “Cabin Fever” becomes a checklist of unrelated, variably successful ideas, including scenes directly lifted from genre classics (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Deliverance” et al.) There are too many endings — so-so punchlines that don’t stop even with the final credit scroll.
Further blurring line between homage and imitation is use of some musical themes by Angelo Badalamenti, which inevitably conjure “Twin Peaks” memories. (First-time feature director/cowriter Eli Roth has, in fact, done prior work for David Lynch.) Nathan Barr’s original score is at times too derivative of Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s excellent one for the otherwise forgotten cannibal pic “Ravenous.”
Evidently long in the making, feature nonetheless coheres well as a tech package, with Scott Kevan’s wide-format lensing adding more class than content deserves. Perfs by young leads are adequate, though script gives them nothing special to work with. Roth himself is entertaining in a too-brief role as a backpacking, extreme-sports-playing stoner.