The soggy horror movie "Cabin Fever" opens in the sort of backwoods where genre upstarts like Sam Raimi once roamed. Much like Raimi's classic carnival of lost souls "The Evil Dead," this new film centers on five college kids who, in retreating to a woodland cabin, embark on a gruesome nightmare. But rather than steep his story in dread, ideas or something, anything, fresh and different, first-time director Eli Roth just pours on the blood, along with some recycled surrealism and plenty of giddy movie allusions. When you're this self-satisfied it isn't necessary, apparently, to attend to your art or your audience. After taking off from school, Roth's five friends drive into the kind of deep country that exists in the fevered imagination of rabbity city dwellers and fans of "Deliverance" -- the kind of deep country where men wear overalls but don't seem to work any farms and banjo chords twang in the air. (Or at least your head.) If it weren't for the weird little boy sitting in front -- and the fox urine on sale inside -- the weathered general store the five stumble across before heading to their cabin would look almost Martha Stewart Living quaint. But this is the land of the dead and the abnormally dying, and the boy seems to be some sort of freak, which may be why the visitors don't seem to hear one man's parting words of caution to be "very careful."
And so into the woods they go, rigged for slaughter. There's the sexually frustrated, fundamentally decent Paul (Rider Strong), who has a schoolboy crush on the good-girl blond in the bikini, Karen (Jordan Ladd). There's the pair's functional doppelgangers, snide Jeff (Joey Kern) and game Marcy (Cerina Vincent), the sexed-up couple that provides the film its requisite bedroom gymnastics (with Vincent providing its requisite female nudity). Last, there's boorish Bert (James DeBello), a hulking jock-type whose penchant for shooting squirrels with a BB gun practically guarantees that he'll be wearing a big, fat DOA tattoo on his forehead. But, then, these characters are so ripe for the butcher's knife -- and so monumentally irritating -- it's a wonder that none has an apple stuck in their mouth. Which is the exact and only point.
A former assistant to David Lynch who was once attached to "Cabin Fever" as an executive producer, Roth has a cinephile's sense of history. He opens the film with some Lynchian buzzing and, in a nod to "Blue Velvet," even brandishes an ear crawling with bugs, hints that his ambitions may be more high-minded than his simple setup indicates. (Lynch's longtime composer Angelo Badalamenti contributes some songs.)
The film's eerie opening, with actor Arie Verveen as a woodland hermit, proves that Roth has watched his share of stripped-to-the-bleached-bone grand guignol, most obviously Raimi's playful "Evil Dead" movies and Tobe Hooper's master-class freakout, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Yet if the opener suggests that Roth wants to move horror out of its self-reflexive moment, to get back to teeth-chattering basics, the rest of the film shows a director who's more intent on sending up the genre than doing it justice.
Horror often contains an element of comedy, but because audiences adapt so quickly to horror's shocks it doesn't take long before our nervous laughter turns derisive, mocking. Wes Craven's "Scream" wittily traded on our familiarity with slasher-movie cliches, including those deployed by the director in earlier films. But the success of "Scream" may have been a Pyrrhic victory for the genre, because much of American horror now seems at a creative impasse, caught in an endless cycle of giggly self-parody. Caught in the same cycle, Roth and co-writer Randy Pearlstein choke up the occasional belly laugh in "Cabin Fever" ("That guy asked us for our help and we lit him on fire!"), but they're so busy selling their jokes and their film-geek smarts they never figure out how to scare us. They don't know boo.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence and gore, sexuality, language and brief drug use
Times guidelines: Lots of bloody vomiting and skinless flesh; a dog chows a few bodies
Black Sky Entertainment and Deer Path Films present a Downhome Entertainment Tonic Films Production, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Eli Roth. Writers Randy Pearlstein, Eli Roth. Story Eli Roth. Producers Eli Roth, Lauren Moews, Sam Froelich, Evan Astrowsky. Editor Ryan Folsey. Cinematographer Scott Kevan. Music Nathan Barr. Special makeup FX Bob Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, Berger EFX Group. Production designer Franco Giacomo-Carbone. Costume designer Paloma Candelaria. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.