Watching Cabin Fever long after seeing director Roth's Hostel mini-franchise take off is a curious experience. First, it gives one a profound notion of just how far Roth has progressed as a director and writer. Second, it points to some stubborn qualities that, since we've seen them appear in three flicks (and even his fake trailer for Grindhouse), we can definitively point to as the limitations of Roth's talents.
Cabin Fever tells the story of a group of highly-grating twenty-somethings who rent a secluded cabin in the unnamed wildness of some meticulously backwater place. After a bit of exposition to establish that these characters have some history together, Roth inflicts them with a particularly nasty flesh-eating virus that not only begins to strip away their flesh, but also makes them victim to an unending barrage of horror film allusions. As the virus gets more bloody and mushy, paranoia sets in and our protagonists turn on one another. This is particularly unfortunate as their rotting condition attracts the attention of the local populace and constabulary, both of which hold remarkably simple, if blunt, views about how public health issues should be handled. Stuck between gun-totting mountain-folk vigilantes and a disease that's part ebola and part Red Death, our heroes find themselves trapped in a bleakly unpromising position.
Cabin Fever is the work of a director who is unusually accomplished on a technical level, but utterly lacking in anything particularly interesting to say or do. CF looks good. Roth suffers from the unfortunate beginner's-notion that simply turning a camera on a pretty lake will give you beautiful shot; but, for the most part, the rich detail that made his two later films so visually arresting is on display. The set design for the titular cabin is packed with fine details and Roth shoots it in such a way that it shifts from generically cheesy to sinisterly claustrophobic. He's also excellent at getting the maximum bang for his buck out of the effects folks. In this we see the foundations of Roth's style.
What Roth has improved on considerably is characterization. When I reviewed Hostel, I opined that the American tourists were annoying enough that they almost justified the existence of snuff-clubs. Compared to the teens in Cabin Fever, the jackass youngsters of Hostel come off like witty/smooth combos of Oscar Wilde and Cary Grant. Watching Roth try to invest the cast of Cabin Fever with some life is painful. For realz. Like reach for the remote and fast forward until we some blood painful. It's debatable if the girls from Hostel 2 are a step backward (though the character work in that flick is, I think, redeemed by his work with the predators, who remain Roth's most interesting characters to date). Still, even the girls of H2 aren't as bile-inducing as this crowd. I should point out that this isn't, I think, the fault of the actors. They've got a script which requires them to act against rotted hobos, extreme skateboarders (in an inadvisable cameo by Roth), and other bizarre non-sequiturs. They're game, but the can't make us give a crap about these thoroughly disposable characters.
What Roth hasn't improved on is controlling his narrative arc. It strikes me that Roth gets a boss idea, figures out how to justify the idea, and then doesn't know how to close the deal. In all three of his films, the trap he sets up from the beginning slowly closes around his characters. The strength of his ideas is that they are built like traps. There's a relentless, unforgiving, mechanical fatedness to his concepts. However, in the last act, one character always suddenly bursts free of the trap and then, adrift, ends up running through a pointless and anti-climactic dénouement. It happens in CF, with a character suddenly running into what I assume are supposed to be comedic scenes, a deer "attack", and other time-padding senselessness. It happens with the looping escape-unescape-escape in Hostel. And it happens with the flatly unfunny close in Hostel 2. In a debut flick you might think this was just lack of experience. But, given the fact that every flick he's done has it (and even the Thanksgiving trailer spins wildly out of control), one has to wonder if he's just blind to the fact that it robs his films of some of their punch.
Should you catch Fever? Pretend you can see me shrug. It is functional flick with some nice gross-out moments and a novel slasher-without-a-slasher feel to it. But fans of Roth's lavish squalor with find that approach still a work in progress here. The film further suffers from the fact the Roth's annoying characters and meandering end make the film's opening and closing a bit of a slog.