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Featured Blu-ray Review: Cabin Fever: Unrated Director's Cut

February 15th, 2010

Cabin Fever - Unrated Director's Cut - Buy from Amazon

Eli Roth was an unknown entity in the movie industry when in 2001 he made a small budget horror film called Cabin Fever. It cost just $1.5 million to make but sold to Lionsgate for $3.5 million, the biggest sale at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival. When it opened in 2003, it earned the studio's second biggest opening weekend ever (only Dogma had opened better at that time) and while it struggled over the next few weeks, it still finished in third place on the studio's all time B.O. list (with only Dogma and Monster's Ball performing better). Some argue that the movie changed the industry, propelling Lionsgate into a battle for 'Best of the Rest' (the only studio outside of the six majors to top it in 2009 B.O. was Summit, and that was thanks to only one film). Additionally, the movie helped bring back R-rated horror at a time when PG-13 ruled the marketplace. Though it is hard to argue with the film's impact, the real question is: is it any good?

The film begins with a hermit coming back from a successful rabbit hunt and attempting to tempt his obviously dead dog with the smell of his catch. When examines it, he sees the dog's insides have been liquefied and he's immediately hit the face by some bloody puss. Gross.

The plot starts on the last day of college, with five friends (Paul, Bert, Karen, Marcy, and Jeff) heading up to a cabin in the woods which they had rented to celebrate graduating. On the way they have a strange encounter at a small town general store with a racist owner and his son, who bites Paul. Once they get to the cabin, they get right to the usual drinking and sex and having a good time, but this is a 'Cabin in the Woods' movie, so you know the good times are going to end. Specifically, they end when Bert goes squirrel hunting and accidentally shoots the hermit we previously saw, leaving the sick man to die in the woods. Of course, later on the hermit comes to their cabin and whatever sickness he has, the graduates catch. That's when the real horror starts.

Cabin Fever reviews are a little hard to judge. On the one hand, genre critics tend to love the movie. It even has many major moviemakers as fans (Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, etc.). On the other hand, it evenly split the critical cream of the crop with opinions ranging from 'reinventing the genre' to 'more gory than scary' to 'derivative' and worse.

My opinion falls in-between, though more to the latter than the former. There are some excellent examples of make-up in this movie, and the attempts at building psychological horror are appreciated. There are a lot of tributes paid to a lot of old-school horror films, which is both a good thing and a bad thing: it does give film geeks something to look out for, but it often feels like a gimmick on an otherwise by-the-numbers movie. Additionally, there are some scenes that are just WTF moments that make little sense. Overall, I would call the movie mostly effective, but I would not label it a "classic" like some people do.

Extras on the Blu-ray include an audio commentary track with Eli Roth and many of the cast. They recorded this audio commentary for the previous version of the movie and I think that's why this one has so many starts and stops in it. Perhaps they just don't have much to add. There is a Family-Friendly Version, which is a one-note joke on the trend of making PG-13 horror. There are two problems with this bit. First, it's not funny. Second, the problem with most horror films today isn't that the studio wanted a PG-13 movie so they cut all the scary bits, it's that the people making the movies don't know how to make horror films. They substitute gore for scares. (1408 is great and it's rated PG-13, while most R-rated horror films are garbage.) Next up are a series of stop-motion animated shorts by Eli Roth about a rock band called The Rotten Fruit. There are only a few jokes here that work and there's too much repetition. Beneath the Skin is a 30-minute-long "making-of" featurette and (besides the audio commentary track) it's the only extra worth checking out. Pancakes! is a short clip of the actor that played the demented kid showing off his martial arts skills, while Postcards from Bunyon County is a slideshow.

So compared to the original DVD, there's a new audio commentary track, two additional Rotten Fruit shorts, and the Blu-ray exclusive Postcards from Bunyon County (also, there's the ability to set bookmarks, but this is a minor perk). As for the film's technical presentation, it's middling at best. Yes, the movie cost only $1.5 million to make, so going in I wasn't expecting a top tier production. But it merely matched expectations. The biggest selling point for the Blu-ray is the 'Unrated Director's Cut' which runs a few minutes longer. However, as the director states, the theatrical cut trimmed a lot of the weird character moments (not the nudity or gore) so calling it 'Unrated' is purely a marketing ploy. I would have really liked the old version of the movie to be included, as well as the old audio commentary track.

The Verdict

At times, Cabin Fever feels like Eli Roth's demo reel for film school--filled with shots 'borrowed' from earlier films that served as his influences. Perhaps one day he will synthesize these influences and make a truly great movie, but this one is only above average. The film's Blu-ray debut this week is a mixed bag. A lot of fans of the movie will want to see the Unrated Director's Cut, but I'm not sure there's a lot to justify the double-dip.


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