Like it or not, Eli Roth’s 2002 effort Cabin Fever changed the face of horror. Roth spent much of the late 1990s attempting to get the film made, which managed to combine elements of homage, dark humor and gore that the market hadn’t quite seen. Known for his use of sex and nudity, Roth hasn’t exactly scored himself points with the more serious crowd that doesn’t need sex to have a great horror film; one of the more frequent criticisms I hear concerns him being a hack who loves tits and blood more than plot. However, if you take that stance, I think we’re overlooking something important in the original Cabin Fever: Roth and co-writer Randy Pearlstein went to great lengths to incorporate elements of both relationships and human nature into the sexual interactions of the film, demonstrating a deeper ability to think in the face of a breast-filled gore fest.
Roth and Pearlstein present two versions of couples in this film: definite couple Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Jeff (Joey Kern, who looks like he could be the bastard child of Greg Marmalard from National Lampoon’s Animal House) and Karen (Jordan Ladd) and Paul (Rider Strong), a pair who haven’t quite gotten there yet. Marcy and Jeff’s duration of relationship isn’t established, but the moment they get to the cabin, they run to their room and have enthusiastic sex. In a moment we don’t get to see very often in film, Marcy flips Jeff over and – while we don’t explicitly witness it – it’s implied that she sodomizes him. Jeff’s reaction isn’t a bad one, either: judging by the sighs and facial expressions, he’s having a good time. Male sodomy is typically a joke or a punishment in horror films, which makes Jeff’s enjoyment a welcome rarity in this respect. It’s also clear that he’s in a relationship with someone he trusts as he heads toward this act; this isn’t second-date material, people (either that, or my standards of dating are way too high). On the flip side of this established and trusting sexual relationship, we have Karen and Paul, who have known each other for years and haven’t acted upon their attraction until this point. Paul isn’t interested in just nailing Karen: despite that he doesn’t come right out and say it, Paul is clearly in love with her, and has been for a long time. So he waits for her to kiss him, and pursues her at her own pace. This culminates as the pair lie in bed together and start fooling around one morning, only to discover that Karen’s thigh is sporting a nasty spot of flesh-eating virus. That horrifying moment aside, though, look at Paul’s actions: he falls asleep next to her while comforting her; he doesn’t demand she service him sexually first; his hand slips below the covers to offer her sexual pleasure first. These aren’t the actions of a man looking for a quick lay. This is someone who wants to build a relationship. Strong’s performance as Paul helps drive home the caring factor, which we don’t doubt for a moment. It’s not just about sex with Karen.
It is just about sex between Paul and Marcy, though. After the virus has ravaged Karen, and Burt and Jeff have both run off, Marcy’s left with Paul and a growing sense of dread. Marcy knows that the likelihood of survival is not high, and she tells Paul, “It’s like being on a plane, when you know it’s gonna crash. Everybody around you is screaming, ‘We’re going down! We’re going down!’ And all you want to do is grab the person next to you and fuck them, because you know you’re going to be dead soon, anyway.” Out of this sense of terror, we get the sex scene between Marcy and Paul. What’s left here is the unspoken acknowledgement of their impending doom: Marcy knows, after seeing multiple people die, that she will die too, so she might as well get a few minutes of enjoyment out of it. She even declines the use of a condom, which makes sense: neither of them will be around long enough to worry about pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases in the face of a flesh-eating virus. As much as Paul doesn’t want to admit that it’s that late in the game, he goes along with it, which means that on some level or another, Paul knows he will die too. There’s no final girl in this film, so there’s no use in keeping sexual chastity. Sex in this instance becomes a life-affirming escape for two people in an impossible-to-survive situation.
Why does this matter? For a horror film that prides itself on being gory and accurate in terms of flesh-eating grossness, it certainly focuses upon human relationships and reactions to mortality. We get to see two people in a trusting physical relationship, then two people in a budding relationship, and yet another permutation of a couple that engages in sex in the face of certain death. That’s a pretty rich spectrum right there, and this came from fucking Eli Roth. There are some horror films that choose to address the depths of relationships, but they typically only show one struggle or facet of relationships: typically in horror, we get the couple on the rocks that’s rebuilding after a tragedy or an emotional chasm. We don’t often get to see enjoyable male sodomy or a respectful man trying to date, or a pair of people that decide that it’s all over so they better screw while they still can. You can find rich characters is Cabin Fever of all places!
That is why I feel we need to be less dismissive of Roth as a whole. Sure, Pearlstein had a hand in this; sure, Roth has gone on to create films drenched in gore and tits. He’s someone that likes extremes. What you can’t deny, though, is the fact that Roth can choose to insert some interesting commentary into his horror films. While he may not be the most polished or original at times, you simply can’t deny that he gets people talking. Proof once again that horror often has something to say when you least expect it.