Sometimes you don’t agree with decisions but at least you can understand them. When Gus Van Sant decided to do a shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” (1960), it may have seemed like a bad idea and, in fact, it turned out to be a bad idea but if you squint really hard you can sort of see why he would have wanted to do it. Maybe he thought of it as some sort of creative challenge or maybe he just wanted to publicly express his admiration for the Master of Suspense or maybe he tricked people into giving him the money to make the world’s most expensive demonstration of the vacuousness of Hollywood’s remake machine. But to essentially make a shot-for-shot remake of “Cabin Fever” (2002)? What possible reason could anyone have for that?
That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown will consider as we ponder how anyone could look at a modest genre success which had already spawned an awful sequel and an even more terrible prequel and think “You know what? The world really needs to see the original again with superior production values and inferior everything else!” It’s “Cabin Fever” (2002) vs. “Cabin Fever” (2016) in a contest that proves anyone who is disappointed that Eli Roth has never lived up to his promise as a filmmaker was probably wrong about how promising he was all along.
To start with, when I call “Cabin Fever” (2016) essentially a shot-for-shot remake, I am not exaggerating. These two movies have the same characters in the same setting with almost the same dialog and the exact same plot. That one is a legitimately decent little horror flick while the other is a punch-yourself-in-the-face-for-watching-it disaster is lesson in the weird alchemy of cinema where you can have the same ingredients mixed in the same manner and somehow an idiot chef can still screw it up.
Let's see Ben Savage top this!
The story is about five college kids taking a vacation at a cabin in the woods, which I’m pretty sure has not been something any actual college kids have done in the real world since at least “Evil Dead” (1981). Seriously, when is the last time a college student with the choice being getting drunk on the beach somewhere warm or getting drunk and worrying about Lyme disease somewhere green has picked the latter? There’s a boyfriend and girlfriend, Jeff and Marcy. They’re joined by Paul, a professional beta-male, Karen, the high school tease who never outgrew it, and Bert, the sort of invincible douche who winds up killing someone else in a fraternity hazing stunt. Jeff and Marcy just want to bang. Paul just wants to bang Karen. Karen doesn’t want anything. She’s just there to give Paul someone to want to bang. And Bert has no earthly reason to be there or be friends with any of them.
They arrive at the cabin just as an outbreak of a flesh-rotting disease begins and the five have to protect themselves first from infection, then from each other, and finally from the white trash, redneck locals of the area. Oh, and there’s a guy and his dog camping nearby because screenwriters Eli Roth and Randy Pearlstein realized they needed a slightly more energetic threat than the world’s worst case of full body athlete’s foot to provide a little excitement through the second act and the dart they threw landed on “vicious dog.” Outside of the clever idea of making a horror movie killer a sickness instead of a machete-wielding maniac, the elements of “Cabin Fever” (2002) don’t seem all that impressive at first blush.
Karen felt extremely foolish for having ignored all her dentist's warnings about gingivitis.
But in his directorial debut, Roth shows an impressive grasp of pacing and rhythm and puts barely a wasted second on screen. Roth and co-writer Pearlstein also admirably recognized they weren’t creating a masterpiece, so they threw in everything they could to hold the audience’s attention. There are two gratuitous nude scenes, some erotic storytelling, and a flashback sequence to a bowling alley massacre. None of that has anything to do with the story, either thematically or dramatically. It’s merely a straightforward attempt at arousing some prurient interest.
And to be fair, there’s also some quality screenwriting on display in the original. Jeff possesses the qualities of selfishness and foresight that would end most horror movies before they begin if more characters had them. He’s the sort of guy who hears someone screaming behind a door at the end of a long, dark hallway and decides to jump out the window. Marcy is a two-dimensional chick whose two dimensions are she’s assertive and she’s horny, but both of those play a useful role in the story. Karen is presented as the classic good girl but also as an experienced manipulator of the male sex drive. Paul is the putative hero of the tale but he’s a bit of a date-rapey creep as well. And Burt starts out as a cartoonish jerk whose humanity emerges as the atrocities commence.
“Cabin Fever” (2002) is a low-brow bit of cinema which doesn’t allow its lack of ambition to excuse a lack of execution. Roth may not be aiming very high but he’s still very focused on hitting his mark. Aided by capable work from his cast, he created something of genuine worth. “Cabin Fever” (2002) isn’t a must-see but it’s certainly something you should watch over the mountain of other dreck in the horror genre.
"What did that guy mean when he said I had a 'purty mouth?'"
How Roth went from a youngish man with that sort of filmmaking integrity to a middle-aged man who would help produce a remake that stunk on ice is probably quite a sad story, but I’m sure it’s not nearly as pathetic as “Cabin Fever” (2016). The only noteworthy things about it are it might be the most gentrified remake in movie history and its director Travis Zarlwny might be the poster boy for “Filmmakers Who Make Movies As Though They’ve Never Interacted With Another Human Being.”
Nearly everything in the remake looks better than the original, at least superficially. The camera work is more impressive and varied. The sets are more detailed and extensive. Even the costuming is more stylish. The cabin in 2002 looks like the sort of cheap accommodations college kids could afford. The remake cabin is a two-story mini-mansion that looks like some corporate executive’s hunting getaway. The whole remake appears to have cost a lot more than the original, except for the bizarre incongruity that the 2016 main actors are all slightly less attractive than their 2002 counterparts.
And Zarlwny’s ability to slavishly follow the 2002 screenplay while still being unable to present a single believable or interesting human character on screen is almost impressive, like a surgeon who somehow manages to sew up a patient with his right hand still inside. He removes all the pervy aspects of Paul, rendering him as interesting as a coat rack. He also neuters the teenage tease aspects of Karen until she’s even more of a plot device than before. Marcy goes from two-dimensional to no-dimensional. Jeff looks like an underwear model who wandered onto the set one day. And Burt…good grief. 2002 Burt was an annoying ass but at least he was an annoying ass you’ve either known or could imagine knowing in real life. 2016 Burt is a walking, talking void. If someone put a gun to my head and demanded I define 2016 Burt’s character, my brains would wind up splattered all over the wall.
For a cabin in the middle of nowhere, that's one hell of a clean window.
And you might think all of that was the fault of the actors but you would be wrong. I mean, maybe if the 2016 cast had all been genius thespians, they might have been able to salvage something of their parts. But you can tell the problem is not a lack of acting talent but a director who doesn’t understand how real people behave. That’s made clear by two supporting characters in the remake who are not even like something out of a bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch. These guys are like something out of a bad sketch from “Pink Lady and Jeff.” For Zarlwny to allow two actors to embarrass themselves that way is proof positive he’s the source of the suck.
Let me see if I can sum up Zarlwny’s lack of human comprehension. In “Cabin Fever” (2002), there’s a scene where Karen is alive buy horribly decayed and Paul has to put her out of her misery, so he beats her head in with a shovel. It’s a harsh scene that also plays as the wimpy Paul’s ascent into manhood. There’s the same scene in 2016 but Paul doesn’t hit Karen with the shovel. He spears her in the face with it, which is not only a fairly unnatural act to perform with a shovel but it doesn’t kill her. And as she lies there with her lower jaw ripped away from her head, Paul still doesn’t beat her to death with the shovel. He douses her sore-covered body in gasoline, sets her on fire, and stands there listening to her scream as she burns to death. This officially makes Paul the most incompetent dick in horror history but Zarlwny portrays this hilarious bit of black comedy as though it were some wrenching moment of noble brutality. He just doesn’t get it.
Seriously, how can five college kids afford this place? Is there some other movie where they're all drug dealers?
“Cabin Fever” (2002) takes this Throwdown, as if you needed me to confirm that, because it’s good enough to make the idea of turning it into a franchise seem vaguely plausible. That “Cabin Fever” (2016) and every other entry in the franchise has turned out to be cinematic catastrophes shows the difference between plausible and wise. And that Roth allowed himself to be connected to the 2016 remake in any fashion only shows that success, even of a very limited kind, can be the worst drug of all.
Cabin Fever (2002)
Written by Eli Roth and Randy Pearlstein.
Directed by Eli Roth.
Starring Rider Strong…yes, the buy from “Boy Meets World”…Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern, Arie Verveen, Robert Harris, Hal Courtney, Matthew Helms, Richard Boone, and Giuseppe Andrews.
Cabin Fever (2016)
Written by Eli Roth and Randy Pearlstein.
Directed by Travis Zarlwny.
Starring Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario, Samuel Davis, Nadine Crocker, Dustin Ingram, Randy Schulman, George Griffith, Tim Zajaros, Aaron Trainor, Louise Linton, and Laura Kenny.
They just realized this wasn't going to be a remake of "The Burning."