Cabin Fever

“Cabin Fever” begins with a man waving a dead rabbit in front of what turns out to be a dead dog. For the characters, things go downhill from there. For the audience, we are treated to a 90-minute homage to the true classics of the horror genre: “Evil Dead,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Night of the Living Dead” and others.

Director Eli Roth, who wrote the film with Randy Pearlstein, knows his source material and clearly has an affection for it. There is little about “Cabin Fever” that is original, except for the few instances when Roth gently twists the genre’s conventions. Most of the time, the conventions remains firmly intact, and Roth uses them the way a great painter uses the colors and techniques of the masters.

The scenario is virtually identical to “Evil Dead”: a group of young people is in a secluded cabin; some sort of virus or force kills them. The group is your standard lot of slasher-movie college students, heading to the woods of Texas for a weekend. There’s the horny couple, Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Jeff (Joey Kern), who have sex literally within seconds of arriving at the cabin. Then you have Paul (Rider Strong), in love with his best friend Karen (Jordan Ladd), and hoping to develop romance with her. Finally, there is the requisite fifth wheel, Bert (James DeBello), an obnoxious and vulgar miscreant who drinks nothing but beer and attempts to shoplift a Snickers bar from the general store.

Ah, and the general store. Films like this usually have one, where country folk offer the teens advice on the order of, “Be careful out in those woods.” At this particular general store, there is a long-haired boy named Dennis who sits on a bench out front and bites people who approach him. There is also a fantastic joke about a rifle owned by the proprietor. It is maybe the best joke I’ve heard in a movie all year.

The gang encounters the mysterious illness — a pretty gross flesh-eating virus of sorts — when a man shows up at their door, bloody, sick and seeking a doctor. There is mixed reaction as to how to deal with him; the outcome is grim, as summarized by Karen, who says, “That guy asked for our help. We lit him on fire.”

The film, shot on the cheap but with gloriously real makeup effects, has a deliciously dark sense of humor and provides some honest scares. However, it also uses cheap scare tactics too often, particularly the one where you put a loud blast of music on the soundtrack at the same time that someone walks in a door, or whatever. The audience jumps because it is startled, even though nothing scary has occurred. Roth uses the device too often.

The film is almost exclusively for fans of the genre. It is not enough to seek a good scare; you will also need an appreciation for the aforementioned classics, films whose plots and characters are rudimentary and whose premises are single-minded in their devotion to terror and mayhem. “Cabin Fever” is not great as art, but it deserves a place alongside its predecessors in the pantheon of horror flicks.

B (1 hr., 34 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some very strong sexuality, some nudity, some strong violence and gore.)