By Todd Gilchrist
The end of Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever is pretty much a disaster, but if you can get there from the beginning of the film you may not mind. Ti West's disowned sequel to Eli Roth's 2002 cult movie indisputably falls apart in its final scenes, but the writer-director of The House of the Devil has an unerring ear for naturalism, even when firmly ensconced in teen comedy territory, and makes the most of material that otherwise might not deserve such attention to detail. All of which means that this may not be the best follow-up for new fans of the filmmaker, but Cabin Fever 2 is far from the "complete disaster" status that for three years made it the black sheep of Lionsgate's often-lackluster catalogue.
The film stars Noah Segan (The Brothers Bloom) as John, a high school senior who wants to ask his friend Cassie (Alexi Wasser) to the prom but is paralyzed by the prospect of a beatdown by her psycho sometime-ex-boyfriend Marc (Marc Senter). His buddy Alex (Rusty Kelley) manages to score himself a date after comforting a forlorn stripper named Liz (Regan Deal), but their plans for a perfect night are dashed when the entire populace of the school succumbs to a bizarre, deadly disease. Fleeing from military forces determined to contain the outbreak, not mention decaying, highly-contagious members of their graduating class, John, Cassie and Alex fight to escape their school before flying bullets – or worse yet, blood – prevent them from seeing the next morning.
For fans of '80s teen comedies, there's not a hair out of place in the film's careful recreation of genre conventions: The lovestruck high schooler. His oblivious crush object. Her douchebag boyfriend. The quick-witted comic relief. Even the overmodulated, shrewish teacher is meticulously engineered to create a landscape of utter and inescapable familiarity. But just like in The House of the Devil, West manages to turn those clichés into something, well, if not original, then at the very least effective, thanks to deftly-scripted, naturalistic dialogue and convincing performances by the principal cast members.
Additionally, West continues to demonstrate that he's this generation's most sensitive and subtle director of horror stories – a rarified distinction among purveyors of sleaze, gore and scares. In one sequence, a jock seduces an overweight girl at the urging of his friends; rather than staging a plan to humiliate her, he genuinely wants to have sex with her, removing the typical onus that fat people equals funny, and furthermore, shooting the two actors removing their clothes in a long-shot single take. His appreciation for characters, even ones usually given a single dimension at absolute best, is evident in his handling of the story's dramatic interludes, such as John's confession of love to Cassie, and he elevates these scenes to moments of genuine emotional resonance.
At the same time, Cabin Fever 2 is also one of the goriest and most disgusting films I've seen in a really long time. Anyone only familiar with The House of the Devil will be duly shocked by the abundance of blood and bodily fluids West lovingly splatters across the screen, and he constructs his story to offer a moment or two of gore at a constant enough clip that the folks watching the film strictly for these elements will be fully satisfied, and then some. That said, even though he formulates many of these scenes to be gag-inducingly fun, he also understands how to rachet up tension and create true atmosphere; a sad scene between Cassie and a pregnant girl turns into something darker, scarier and more dangerous, and seems to acknowledge the film could be much creepier and less fun if it were taken in that direction – which West clearly could have done easily.
Then, of course, there's that ending, which quite literally feels as if was the byproduct of the filmmakers just quitting or giving up altogether. In interviews West has discussed the situation diplomatically, but it's obvious that the film was taken away from him and assembled from his footage without guidance or approval. While he's asked to receive neither blame nor credit, he deserves plenty of the latter even though it doesn't come together cohesively in the end, or at the end, because if nothing else it shows his versatility, and his facility with finding that authentic voice for his characters, whether they're cooped up in a haunted house he designed himself, or operating according to the demands of long-established cinematic conventions.
Looking back at the body of the review, I'm realizing that I devoted more time talking about its teen-movie conventions than its horror-movie ones, and that may make the difference between folks who hate the film and those who become fans: this is a comedy with gore, not a horror movie with humor. In which case, if you love John Hughes and Cameron Crowe and all of the '80s teen movies that made unrequited high-school love such a rich landscape for drama, then this might be the movie for you – if you can stomach the stuff that's in between. But even as a "bad" or un-scary horror movie, I still feel like this is a better film than many of the more acclaimed "good" ones, because story structure notwithstanding, it's technically polished and features terrific performances. In the end, or better off, without one, Cabin Fever 2 is a serviceable sequel that satisfies the demands of its designated genre while managing to fulfill some from other, unexpected ones as well.