Eli Roth’s 2002 horror directorial debut Cabin Fever is one of my favorites of the genre. It has just enough weird and incongruous images (the “pancakes” scene, the bunny suit man at the end, the interspliced images, etc.) to welcome repeated screenings and friendly arguments. The thing that most fans remember about this movie is the gore and special effects, particularly the infamous shaving scene, in which Marcy (Cerina Vincent) weepingly shaves her leg while heaps of skin fall off in the process.
Eli Roth co-wrote the film with his friend and former NYU roommate Randy Pearlstein while Roth was a nighttime production assistant to Howard Stern during the filming of Private Parts (1997). Roth wrote whenever he found free time on the job. Roth speaks about this process (and Hostel) Mick Garris’s podcast Post Mortem. Roth describes Cabin Fever as “everything as a kid that you wanted to do as a kid that just explodes in your first film.” According to Roth, the crew built the cabin themselves, so that the interior of the cabin appeared larger than the exterior (his homage to Evil Dead). He made a conscious choice to include a number of references to his favorite horror films, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, etc. However, for Hostel, he purposefully didn’t allow himself to watch any movies while filming so that it would be entirely original.
According to Cabin Fever’s IMDB page, this film had the “lowest budget of any Lion’s Gate Film released in 2003, ($1.5 million) and was their highest grossing film of 2003 ($22 million box office). It was also the most profitable horror film released in 2003.” In 2004, Saw would beat the film’s record for “highest grossing film over a similar low budget (grossing over $100 million with a budget of $1.2 million).” This is pretty surprising considering the fact that initial attempts made by Roth to sell the script were unsuccessful because “studios felt the horror genre had become unprofitable.” Studio executives expressed interest in the script only if Roth could make it feel more like Scream (1996), which he didn’t want to do. A number of potential financiers also dropped out or refused to support Cabin Fever for various reasons, including the “unsettling” content of the film (both the gore and the use of the n-word early in the movie) and an anthrax scare that impacted a few of the independent investors on the first day of shooting.
It’s also helpful to consider this film’s proximity to 9/11. Auditions for the role of Marcy occurred on September 11, 2001 and, despite attempts to cancel the auditions, the confusion of the day made it difficult to contact all of the actresses, so the auditions went on as originally scheduled. Even more troubling, the part that the auditioning actresses were asked to read was from the scene in which Marcy explains her belief that people on a plane doomed to crash would want “one last screw.” The film began filming one month after the attacks.
Cabin Fever tells the story of five friends and recent college graduates who rent a cabin in the woods to celebrate the start of the summer after graduation. Unfortunately, on their first night, an hermit infected with a contagious and fatal skin disease visits their cabin. When the hermit tries to force his way into their cabin, the terrified friends fight back. By the end of the fight, their car is completely destroyed (completely because of Paul’s (Rider Strong) poorly aimed baseball bat swings) and the man is on fire. He runs off into the woods and, unbeknown to the friends, dies in a major water supply. His blood, and therefore, the disease, infects there water. The night before, the friends made a playful dare to see who could last the longest only drinking beer. Ironically, it is this challenge that allows some of them to last longer than others. As the film progresses, we see the five friends fight amongst themselves as they begin to panic at being stuck in the woods, surrounded by creepy locals in a contaminated cabin, without a means of escape. By the end of the film, they are all (pretty much- Paul is barely alive in the final shots) dead, however, not a single person dies from the disease alone, they are all killed by a human or animal attack. At the end of the film, Paul is dropped off by police officer Winston into a river, where his blood contaminates the locals’ water. Jeff (Joey Kern), the only one of the five friends who does not contaminate the disease (because of his impressive love of beer and germophobia) is shot and killed by local police officers who believe the vacationers to all be contagious and untreatable. The movie ends with the locals at the general store from the film’s opening, drinking lemonade made by water tainted with Paul’s blood.
What’s up with that?
One aspect of this film that I’d love to examine further is the changing color scheme. According to the IMDB trivia page, the light levels become progressively darker throughout the film “partially by design and partially due to circumstance.” Joey Kern was injured on set, which caused the shooting schedule to drastically change. Many of the interior cabin scenes were shot at night, requiring artificial light, which causes the image to look darker than it would with natural lighting. However, this progressive darkening of the film helps to add to the movie’s slow descent into its nihilistic finale.
I’ve included this on my ecogothic/ecohorror list, and for good reason. The disease originates from a dog (at least as far as the film shows us) and is carried to the friends’ cabin via a hermit who appears very ‘wild’ in both dress and demeanor, even before he is infected. Notice how he wears colors that blend in with the forest around him. His hear is messy and his face is dirty. This can’t be seen in the still I provide, but he’s also carrying a dead rabbit and a long chain through the forest.
However, as the infection takes hold of him, the hermit becomes even more ‘wild’ and one with the forest, so much so that Bert, who wandered into the woods to drink beer and shoot squirrels because “they’re gay,” mistakes the hermit for a squirrel and shoots him.
Later, when he begs for help, the friends refuse to give him access into their cabin, for fear of infection. They can’t allow this bit of wilderness into their bit of civilization. He causes the destruction of their car, the one piece of man-made technology that allowed them to return to civilization. Additionally, his appearance causes the five friends to turn completely wild. Although most of them want to help the hermit at first, they quickly degenerate into a screaming mass of weapons and violence.
Later, when Karen (Jordan Ladd) is the first of the five to be infected, they refuse to let her sleep inside the house, and instead place her outside in a neighboring barnyard. She is given a bare mattress on the earth floor to sleep on, and is locked in like an animal. When Marcy brings her food, she opens the bottom gate, and crotches down to speak to the ‘wild’ Karen, who is no longer the perky, sexy, kind girl from Berkley. She is now bitter, angry, and sarcastic.
My favorite screenshot, however, comes at the very end. Once Paul has been infected and left to die in a local river, his transformation from civilized to wild is rendered complete. The wild disease had already changed him before this (he went on a murder spree and lost the ability to speak in complete sentences), but this final image displays the full change: He is completely consumed by the wilderness around him, and its difficult to separate him from the surrounding nature.
For Roderick Frazier Nash, in his Wilderness and the American Mind (2001), the term “wilderness” is a culturally-constructed term that “designates a quality (as the “-ness” suggests) that produces a certain mood or feeling” and can be attached to “any place in which a person feels stripped of guidance, lost, and perplexed,” especially “non-human environments” like the ocean, forests, or outer space (1,3). This film also fits well with Tom J. Hillard’s Ecogothic chapter, particularly his focus on “the failure of twentieth-century convenience and technology to provide survival in the woods” in The Blair Witch Project (104). Finally, it also connects with the concept of ‘bewilderment’ as defined in Kevin Corstorphine’s Ecogothic chapter: “…characters have a tendency to be corrupted by contact with either or both (Native Americans and wilderness), becoming literally ‘bewildered’ (124). I’d argue that Cabin Fever displays a version of this bewilderment as a result of contact with a wild space and wild people. However, Roth pushes this concept to an extreme, presenting bewilderment as a sort of flesh-eating and contagious disease.
Three final points I’d like to remember about this film:
- There is a really great example of Barbara Creed’s monstrous-feminine. As Paul engages in sexual activity with Karen (she is eerily passive…), Paul removes his hand from Karen’s vagina only to find that his hand is covered in blood. Horrified, he rips the blanket off of Karen to discover that there is gore near her vagina, indicating her infection. This clearly taps into male anxieties and disgust surrounding menstruation and the vagina in general.
2. Dead animals and roadkill! At the start of the film, the hermit is carrying a dead rabbit and discovers his dead dog. Near the end of the film, Paul crashes into a deer and has to shoot it out of his windshield.
3. The general store. This seems to be a pretty common trope, especially in road trip/ecohorror films (although it’s more often a gas station). At the general store, the disquieting store owner warns the friends to be careful out in the woods.
Corstorphine, Kevin. “‘The blank darkness outside’: Ambrose Bierce and wilderness Gothic at the end of the frontier.” Ecogothic, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 120-133.
Hillard, Tom J. “From Salem witch to Blair Witch: the Puritan influence on American Gothic nature.” Ecogothic, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 103-119.
Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed., Yale University Press, 2001.