September 12, 2003 11:43am EST
New grads Paul (Rider Strong) Karen (Jordan Ladd) Jeff (Joey Kern) Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Bert (James Debello) head off to a cabin in the woods to let off some post-college steam before entering the working world. They are a pretty likeable bunch except for Bert who gets drunk and starts shooting at squirrels with a rifle--and then accidentally shoots a stranger in the woods. Bert keeps mum about the incident until the man projectile vomiting blood and looking like he's been skinned alive shows up at the cabin and tries to take their truck. While trying to stop him Paul unintentionally sets him on fire and the gang watches as he runs ablaze into the woods. What they don't know however is that he had a contagious flesh-eating virus. When his charred body falls into the local water reservoir everyone becomes vulnerable. The first to gulp down a glass of water filled with strange chunky particles is Karen whom they forcibly quarantine in a shed behind the cabin when she begins to show signs of the disease. Before long the fear of contagion turns the remaining four against one another. What's more a local lynch mob has formed in order to track down and kill anyone who may have come in contact with the virus which has apparently threatened this small town before. Cabin Fever is definitely a rollicking ride; it will scare you gross you out and make you laugh.
Like most low-budget horror films Cabin Fever's cast isn't exactly stellar yet the young actors and actresses really elevate the material. The most refreshing thing about the characters is that they react to what is happening to them in a way you and I probably would as opposed to the typical slasher-flick way: Instead of banding together against the common enemy they bicker act like cowards and put themselves first. Strong who last appeared in My Giant but is probably better known as Shawn from the TV series Boy Meets World emerges as a capable lead as Paul the most sensible of the group. Although his character comes across as somewhat brighter and more sensitive than the rest he is still immature enough to try to cop a feel when his love interest Karen is sleeping and feeling under the weather. Karen meanwhile is played by Ladd who has had small roles in several movies including The Specials and Never Been Kissed. Her character is the most compassionate of the gang and Karen reacts more intensely to events than the others. Kern as cocky know-it-all Jeff Vincent as slutty tough chick Marcy and Debello as party boy Bert perfectly round out the diverse cast of characters.
Because of its gruesome subject matter it is difficult to describe such a vile movie as being good or even well made but this one really is. In his feature directorial debut helmer Eli Roth delivers a truly disturbing horror picture. While most pics of this genre tend to look cold and gritty Roth saturates his sets with golden ambient lighting that brightly contrasts the film's dark dismal subject matter. And dismal is putting it mildly: Cabin Fever shows viewers things that most movies don't because they would be considered too disturbing. Case in point: When the intoxicated Bert drives off for help in his pickup and hits a deer the animal doesn't just die on impact but struggles in pain its hind legs flailing through the windshield. Such disturbing imagery escalates by degrees until the very end when the film takes on a weird surreal quality. For example the scenes of Paul being pushed through a hospital on a gurney have a dreamlike feel bound to make moviegoers question if what is happening is real. The film's score also has all sorts of unusual instrumental influences including a Twin Peaks-inspired number when a sheriff comes to investigate the cabin and a Deliverance-type banjo ditty to accompany the locals folk in front of the general store which adds a touch of humor at the most unlikely moment.
The moral of Swimfan is simple (and one that's been handed down from film upon film before it): Don't mess around with a girl teetering on the edge of insanity 'cause nothing good is going to come of it. Still we all know the drill. 18-year-old Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has it all--a loving girlfriend Amy (Shiri Appleby) a promising shot at a swim scholarship with Stanford University and a good job at his mom's (Kate Burton) hospital. That is until he meets Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) the sexy new girl in school who decides she'd like to get to know the handsome Ben a little better. One thing leads to another and--bada-bing! bada-bam!--there they are makin' waves in the pool. Ben doesn't feel great about cheating on Amy and hopes his dalliance and his guilt will just go away. But Madison will not be ignored. After he spurns her she proceeds to systematically ruin his life until ultimately murder becomes the primary objective. Save some glaring implausibilities (how can one teenage girl have so many resources at her fingertips?) Swimfan manages to get its point across.
Obviously what will draw people to this movie is the talent and Swimfan gathers a able collection of good-looking youngsters to carry the movie. Bradford (Bring It On) has a baby face that belies a growing maturity to his acting. He's a natural. Bradford and Appleby (TV's Roswell) are also refreshingly believable as a young couple in love without too much sugar coating. They have an honest moment together sitting at a restaurant while he is trying to get her to forgive him--it's a nice chemistry and you end up rooting for them. Christensen however is the one we all really want to see. Since her fantastic performance as the teenage junkie in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic two years ago she's been touted as one of Hollywood's young performers to watch. At first she infuses Madison with a fair amount of intelligence and wit; she actually seems pretty sane. While the young actress is obviously talented this particular approach works to her disadvantage later when she goes off the deep end. It seems almost forced. Christensen is much better at the cool manipulative and charismatic persona rather than the "look-out-I-have-a-knife" one. She is still one to watch though once she gets her hands on some great material.
OK so there isn't anything new about this concept. Some may cite Clint Eastwood's 1971 Play Misty for Me as the first classic chick-stalker movie and since then there have been some great ones (Fatal Attraction) and some not so great (The Crush). Swimfan falls somewhere in between. For the sake of moving the story along it asks you to suspend your disbelief quite a bit. How could Madison get her hands on hospital drugs or be strong enough to do some of the things she does? Still the direction surprises you at times. Actor-turned-director John Polson isn't going to win any awards but knows how to use the camera effectively. The film captures its actors and the surroundings in a lush way. One particular editing technique he uses is the quick cuts when emphasizing an actor's emotional reaction. When Madison is rejected he cuts between her slightly varying wounded glares. It works. Unfortunately the film still falls into the same tired clichés set by much better predecessors.
Is anything more frightening than realizing that a desperate and hackneyed sequel to a desperate and hackneyed parody required the work of seven writers? Yes seven writers including brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans. Perhaps one group of writers divided their time poking fun at the latest pop culture phenomenons while the other group concocted new and disgusting ways to drench their cast in vomit urine excretion and semen. The result: a tired tasteless and uninspired send-up of The Exorcist and The Haunting complete with jibes at Nike's new Stomp-inspired basketball commercials and the Florida presidential election fiasco. Our heroes-plus some fresh meat--spend the night in the haunted Hell House as part of an experiment conducted by mad professor Tim Curry. Naturally they find themselves tormented by the ghost of the house. Cue sexual humiliations mutilations and giant wedgies.
So the sequel ignores the fact that some of its cast members perished or were implicated in the first film's murders. Were you expecting a semblance of logic to permeate the proceedings? Anna Faris as the virginal Cindy; Marlon Wayans as pothead Shorty; Shawn Wayans as the closeted gay Ray; and Regina Hall as the pushy Brenda return. They are joined by Tori Spelling wasted as a coed obsessed with her ghostly host; Curry hammy as the professor willing to sacrifice his students; David Cross hysterical as Curry's wheelchair-bound assistant whose self-reliance causes more problems than necessary; and Chris Elliott a hoot as the mansion's caretaker whose withered left hand generates more laughs than almost all the script's woeful cracks at satirizing its intended targets. All prove game especially Faris who finds herself up to her neck in all kinds of nasty goo in the name of comedy.
If only director Keenen Ivory Wayans made an effort to be funny rather than just shocking. He seems intent on making the sequel so much more outrageous than his first film that he forgets to make us laugh for the right reasons. The chuckles mask the slight disgust at seeing Faris dripping in semen or Shawn Wayans sodomizing a demonic clown (but the sight of Cross fellating himself is an amusing way to emphasize his character's doggedness). Wayans' attempts at parodying What Lies Beneath and Hannibal flounder but he does a fine job sending up John Woo's dove-filled climax to Mission: Impossible 2. There's nothing more lazy than tearing into The Exorcist--it's 28 years old!--and it's sad to see James Woods demean himself as a priest with a taste for little girls. Woods stepped in for Marlon Brando whose poor health cost him a reported $2 million but saved him his dignity.