Written by: Guillermo Amoedo, Eli Roth
Directed by: Eli Roth
Lorenza Izzo as Justine
Ariel Levy as Alejandro
Daryl Sabara as Lars
Ramon Llao as the Bald Headhunter
Cabin Fever was released right at the end of the Scream-driven teeny bopper PG-13ification of mainstream horror. It came out only a year after Valentine. I hadn't heard much about it before its release, and I don't even remember seeing a trailer on TV. When Malorie and I went to the theater to see it, I think we just wound up going because it was an R-rated horror movie that wasn't another tired cleaned-up slasher wannabe with a cast of WB Network stars. When the credits were done rolling, I walked out of the theater with the biggest smile on my face. Horror was back! Cabin Fever was a breath of putrid, blood-scented air. This Eli Roth kid was clearly someone to watch, and I eagerly awaited his next movie.
Fast forward three years to me standing in line for Hostel on opening night. Fast forward another 90 minutes into the future, when I wanted to hunt Roth down and punch him in the dick. Roth clearly only had the one good movie in him. He has an OK track record as a producer, and has cameos in some great stuff, but every time his name is on something as a writer and/or director, it's guaranteed to be only slightly less painful than scrubbing your eyes with sandpaper soaked in lemon juice.
So when I heard Roth was making his own version of the great Italian cannibal movies of the late 70's and early 80's, I was skeptical. On the one hand, it was Eli Roth. On the other hand, it was a new cannibal movie. That's a pretty serious bit of subject matter. There couldn't really be much room for him to blow his trademark frat boy douchebro jizz all over everything, could there? And then my favorite piece of news about the production; Roth showed the tribe featured in the movie his copy of Cannibal Holocaust so he could show them the kind of thing he was trying to do, and they thought it was funny. Yeesh. The movie wound up being released theatrically over a year later than was intended because the original distribution company hit some financial rocks, and the prolonged wait added to my morbid curiosity. Of course it wasn't going to be as good as Cannibal Holocaust, or even Cannibal Ferox, but surely it would be at least as entertaining as some of the second-tier flicks like Slave of the Cannibal God, right?
Then he started talking about how this movie was his stab at so-called “social justice warriors”. Now, that had a lot of people up in arms but I wasn't one of them. Anyone who has the gall to call themselves a warrior because they tweet about things that make them stamp their feet and spill their Starbucks all over their designer clothes deserves to be fucking eaten. I was discussing this with Brother Ferox the day before the movie, and we were talking about how there is legitimate criticism to be made of activists out to save the world who can't be bothered to fully educate themselves about or listen to the people they think they're saving. Not only that, but a cannibal movie is just about the Platonic ideal of film genres in which to make such a statement intelligently. The cannibal movie template lends itself extraordinarily well to commenting on the perils of not being smart or patient enough to understand the complexities of engaging with other cultures, especially one as alien to the tech-addicted Millenial children of a privileged upper-middle class as a stone-age tribe in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest who have never seen white people but figure they might taste good. Of course, the key word there is “intelligently”. It would take some talent and finesse to balance the commentary with the cannibal carnage, and Roth makes movies with a fucking sledgehammer. Still, it was just possible that in trying to be the most obnoxious jackass he can be, Roth might have stumbled ass-backwards into some progressive socio-political statements. It's also possible that my dog will spontaneously teach himself to speak English, learn astrophysics, and build a TARDIS. Take a guess as to which scenario I find to be more likely.
Justine (played by Lorenza Izzo, Roth's real-life wife) is a college freshman in New York City at the University of We'll Pretend I Paid That Much Attention. She is awakened by the sounds of a protest on the campus lawn, which draws her to the window. The noise also rouses her roommate Kaycee (Played by Sky Ferreira giving what might be the single worst performance I've ever seen in a theatrically released movie. Seriously, there are better performances in The Room, and I'm not just talking about Greg Sestero.), who is much less admiring of the protesters than Justine is. We'll spend the next ten minutes or so listening to her nasal whine berating the greasy hippies and talking about how they all deserve to die because they're utterly worthless for actually giving a shit about anything. Even if you hadn't heard all the stuff about Roth wanting to stick it to “social justice warriors” (I can't bring myself to type that phrase without the quotation marks because that feels like validating it and it's just so goddamn stupid it kinda makes me want to punch a hippy myself), it becomes apparent pretty quickly that Kaycee is meant to be the voice of the filmmakers as well as the audience's viewpoint character. Even though we never see her again after the activist group leaves for Peru, her fork-scraping-on-a-plate voice echoes through every scene, moaning, “I told you so.”
Justine keeps making googly crush eyes at the group's leader, Alejandro, and this fact does not go unnoticed. He sends one of the other members, Jonah, to deliver an invitation to join them at a restaurant where they will be planning their next activity. She's skeptical at first, and makes the mistake of making a smart-ass comment about their hunger strike which causes Alejandro to kick her out. She tracks him down the next day to apologize and ask for a second chance, which she is so magnanimously given by the visibly manipulative and smarmy Alejandro.
As we will find out later, it would have been better for Justine if he had just been stringing her along to get in her pants. Alejandro has come by some intelligence about a Peruvian energy company bulldozing part of the rainforest to get at some rich natural gas deposits. It seems the ground beneath a particular patch of jungle is just lousy with the stuff, and right near the surface so it's cheaply and easily accessible too. Problem is, the deposits are located directly beneath the village of a tribe that has never made contact with the outside world before. It sometimes doesn't go very well in such situations even when first contact is made by missionaries and humanitarian organizations, so it's bound to go poorly for the natives when a squadron of bulldozers escorted by the energy company's private mercenary army come storming out of the trees. Alejandro's plan is for the group to be dropped off just outside the work camp, where they will disguise themselves in stolen uniforms. This should buy them enough time to infiltrate the camp and chain themselves to the trees and equipment before anyone notices anything fishy. A satellite link on their phones will be simulcasting the whole thing to every social media platform in the Western world, which will serve to not only to expose the energy company's illegal activity but to prevent them from being murdered outright by the mercenaries.
All goes according to plan until Justine finds she can't get her padlock to close. No one can hear her cries for help in the ensuing din after the workers realize they're under some form of attack, and since there's nothing holding her in place, she is immediately dragged away from her tree and put on her knees in the dirt with a gun to her head. When she hears Alejandro encouraging the guard to shoot her on camera for the world to see, she realizes that the broken padlock was not a mistake. Far from reciprocating her youthful crush, Alejandro brought her along as bait because her father is a lawyer who works for the United Nations and she was the perfect dupe.
Nonetheless, the ploy works and the workers and mercenaries are forced to abandon their operation. On the flight back out of the jungle, everyone is in a highly celebratory mood. Everyone, that is, except for Justine. She's understandably furious at not just Alejandro for double crossing her, but at everyone else for not being just as furious with him as she is. Even Jonah, the closest thing she has to a friend in the group, can't do anything to assuage her anger. The revels are brought down along with the plane when the engine conks out not far from the site of their protest action, and those unlucky enough to survive the crash are about to find out that those natives they were so desperate to save don't feel the same way towards them.
Up until this point, the movie had been dull and annoying, but had done nothing to truly earn my ire. After all, a good many of the old school cannibal movies have a good sized chunk of boring nothing before the carnage kicks in. Starting here, however, Roth proves once again by emulating something he loves that he doesn't have a goddamn clue how or why the things he loves work. There are exactly two effective scenes in this movie, both of which Roth almost immediately undercuts because he just can't leave well enough alone.
Not long after the crash survivors are caged, the natives come for their first victim. Jonah is led out of the pen and up to a big stone altar. Everyone is being very nice to him so he thinks maybe things are going to turn out all right, but those of us in the audience who have seen these things before know he will be very unhappy in a minute. The sequence of Jonah being hacked up for barbecue is incredibly gruesome; every bit the equal of the ickiest thing the Italians ever threw at us, not counting the animal mutilations. All throughout the rest of the movie, nearly the whole audience kept up a low conversation-level chatter with whoever they were there with. This usually results in me yelling at people to shut the fuck up, but honestly Green Inferno sucks so much it didn't even bother me, and anyone who knows the murderous hatred I have for people who disrupt movies will tell you that is really saying something. This scene, though, made them all shut up. For just a few minutes, the theater was silent enough that I heard the boyfriend of one of the maybe 16- or 17-year-old girls down front who spent the whole movie giggling and texting asking if she wanted to go home.
All right, I thought. Finally this motherfucker is going to kick it into high gear and deliver what I came to see after all! Wouldn't you know it, bare minutes later Roth shits away all that wonderful visceral tension he just built up. Literally. The very next scene centers around a diarrhea joke that makes the one in Dumb and Dumber look subtle by comparison. Most people will say cannibal movies would be better off without the animal snuff footage. They're probably not wrong, but it's such an entrenched part of the genre that I just shake my head and roll with it, even if I don't like it. It's a cheap and nasty shock tactic, but it certainly produces the desired effect. The one thing that I absolutely cannot abide in a cannibal movie, which I never knew until now because all the classic directors who made them were smart enough not to try so it never even occurred to me, is comedy.
Virtually every other genre of horror has some wiggle room for laughs, but not cannibal movies. There's a big difference between being holed up in a building under siege by the living dead or whatever, and being held in a tiny pen waiting to be eaten. Sieges are long and stressful and boring, and one of our most primal instincts is to relieve stress by laughter. But being penned up for food is not the same thing. Cannibal movies should be 100% grueling, nail-chewing, hair-pulling, intense, terrifying survival instinct that never lets up until the credits roll. Again, there was an opportunity to say something about the collapse of social norms in such a situation and make the shit scene uncomfortable and unpleasant and nauseating, which would fit right in and add a great deal to the movie. Needless to say, a full minute of exaggerated fart and splat noises while everyone mugs for the camera and all the native kids wave their hands in front of their faces does not accomplish that.
The movie never once bothers to even try to earn back the respect it got and so quickly lost. Lots of shitty CGI arrows and bullets hitting people, and that's about it. This is a cannibal movie, man! One scene of nasty butchery is not going to cut it! The one other massive punch the movie has been winding up for since the first ten minutes, dealing with female genital mutilation, it pulls at the last minute. Before you say Roth probably had to cut it to get an R rating, he has gone on record as saying the movie you see is the movie he intended to release, with not one concession made to the MPAA. I believe that he really just had no idea what he had given himself to work with, because he's a great big clod.
The other scene that Roth really sticks the landing on is the ending. It's that great classic cannibal ending of the sole survivor denying any cannibal activity and retconning her story to have all the rest of the group killed in the plane crash. It makes every bit as little sense here as it has any other time, but something about the way it plays out feels totally authentic to the old school cannibal movies. It's the only scene in the whole movie that does. Of course, there's a stupid sequel-setup credits cookie that completely ruins it.
Roth might be a better filmmaker if he had any restraint. He always goes a step too far, and I don't mean in a good way, pushing the envelope of shocks and really trying to gut-punch his audience. Every time he hits a crescendo, he has to take it over the top. He's like a singer who always tries to belt every note and has no control. You have to have the quiet moments to appreciate the loud moments, and you have to make sure you keep the reins super tight on the loud moments or you go completely out of key.
Roth likes the movies we like, and I think he genuinely is trying to make movies like them and do something good. It's just that unlike other filmmakers such as Rob Zombie and Quentin Tarantino, who do the same thing, he's a big ol' doofus who doesn't have half enough talent to do the job.
At least he does try to get the noobies in on the classic stuff and not pretend that he's the one who came up with this idea. There's a required viewing list at the end of the credits naming a whole bunch of Italian cannibal movies. Unfortunately, that was the best part of the movie.