The early 2000s gave birth to the last few horror films to acutely capture the paranoia inherent to terror in remote locations. They were tightly edited, confidently directed B-movies. The dialogue was often subpar, but in such a way that it meshed seamlessly with the film: these are your archetype characters, this is where they go, this is how they die. These films succeeded not because they were brimming with original content, but because the filmmakers found a way to imbue them with raw, low-budget energy. Sure, films like Jeepers Creepers and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever weren’t as well-realized or memorable compared to earlier films by the likes of John Carpenter or Wes Craven, but it’s from these retro auteurs that early millennial low-budget horror appropriated its aesthetic.
For those who’ve yet to see Roth’s original film (and this writer recommends you do), director Travis Zariwny’s remake keeps the larger story elements virtually the same. The plot follows five friends who venture out to a remote town for vacation. At first, they drink, laugh, and have fun, but when an uninvited guest shows up covered in blood and carrying a deadly disease, the friends discover their surroundings may not be as getaway-friendly as they initially assumed. Zariwny’s update is merely a formal downgrade of Roth’s cult classic, prompting one to wonder why Roth even bothered to produce this new film, let alone co-write it. In the decade since his initial success, Roth has been moving further away from the gleeful pastiche that characterized his debut. Almost every film he’s involved with is shot digitally, resulting in crisp, clean images. While I’m far from an opponent of the shift to digital filmmaking, the way Roth and his cohorts employ it in telling their stories is discordant with the types of narratives they are invested in. Roth’s Cabin Fever had softer images, all of which were dominated by a reddish hue as though the celluloid had been dipped in a bucket of blood. The formal rigor was attuned to the story being told, and they complemented one another quite effectively.
But Zariwny’s direction is often lazy, and occasionally detached from his material entirely. His movie looks far too clean and static to ever evoke fright. There’s no sweeping camera movements, no drastic coloring, and worst of all, no spark of life. The entire production registers as a clinical endeavor, as though Zariwny only made the film because he was assigned to. A loud, cacophonous score will occasionally envelop chase sequences, but it’s scantly effective. It never pulls the viewer in or enhances the scene. It’s just noise someone threw in because they knew it was supposed to be there. His remake also abandons Roth’s demented, wacky sense of humor, replacing it with references to Call of Duty and dick jokes. With a cast of unknowns led by Matthew Daddario (apparently reprising his douchey role from Drake Doremus’ Breathe In), this new Cabin Fever sorely lacks charming or memorable characters.
The idea of remaking films isn’t as poisonous as many claim, and audiences shouldn’t concede to dismissing movies merely because there is no apparent reason for their existence. But Zariwny’s remake doesn’t even seem to be intrigued by itself. It’s so coldly and haphazardly put together, compiling the parts it needs to function, but never attempting to thrive. If the John Carpenter era of low-budget horror has truly come and gone, and we must resort to reimagining past successes, all I ask is that the filmmakers tasked to do so put their minds together to rediscover that spark of life that made the originals so memorably exciting. This doesn’t necessarily mean shooting on film to revive an old aesthetic. It merely means being creative when shooting digitally in order to realize a visual palette that complements the B-horror narrative. No one is asking for a monster movie that aspires to Tarkovsky-esque levels of formal control, but films that don’t register as entirely lifeless would surely be greeted with open arms by cinephiles and mainstream audiences alike.
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