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Cabin Fever

(2003) *** R
94 min. distributer. Director: Eli Roth. Cast: Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, Joey Kern, Cerina Vincent, James Debello.

What Cabin Fever lacks in discipline, it makes up for in squirmy fun. A creepy-crawly nightmare at turns laughable and genuinely disturbing, Cabin Fever might be, superficially, a bad movie, but practically, it's a blue-ribbon amusement-park house of horrors guaranteed to jolt and tickle.

The film begins, deceivingly, like scores of other horror flicks, with a fivesome of lunkheaded young adults headed into the woods to do mind-altering substances and get laid (the recent and more poker-faced Wrong Turn comes to mind). Rider Strong (the one-time Boy Meets World star with the suspiciously pornographic name) plays Paul, an Everyboy with throbbing but inept designs on his lifelong friend Karen (Jordan Ladd). Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent) are the hot-to-trotters who adjourn to the cabin bedroom at every opportunity, while Bert (James DeBello) happily lopes off to shoot squirrels.

The inevitable horror arrives in the form of a liquifying hermit infected with a flesh-eating virus. The youngsters answer his pleas for help with terrified ineptitude and outsized aggression, marking them as worthy saps for a movie's worth of sadistic and gory punishment. As Roth creatively spreads his killer virus, the actors oblige with fearless performances highlighting the snide and selfish behavior which might well run rampant in this worst-case scenario. As a bonus, Roth kicks in a messy deputy (Giuseppe Andrews) who seems to have wandered in from Twin Peaks.

Roth's gleefully haphazard horror stew stirs reverent fright-film references, flavorful music by Nathan Barr (and maestro Angelo Badalamenti, who contributes three themes), and supreme makeup gross-outs by the legendary team of Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero, and Howard Berger. Primarily, Roth's film trumps its run-of-the-mill horror ilk by being unafraid to see its own idea through to a satisfactory conclusion light on the clichés. Secondarily, Roth and co-writer Randy Pearlstein flirt with social significance (without ever taking themselves remotely seriously) by skewering the isolationist attitudes which spring up in the face of a rampant but not-my-problem virus; numerous homophobic references help peg the characters' ignorance and suggest the musty AIDS metaphor.

Roth's irregular approach also risks sweeping shifts of tone--from high dudgeon to low humor--with quite reasonable success. A David Lynch protege, Roth self-consciously but charmingly exploits deadpan oddballs for both humor and dread, as with the rabid, porch-swinging kid named Dennis, who not only springs to life but engages in an impromptu karate exhibition at the least opportune of times.

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