There's only one rule in the finest scary movies - don't go into the woods.
Having learned nothing from "Deliverance" or "The Blair Witch Project," the motley cast of "Cabin Fever" heads straight to the hills, allowing writer-director Eli Roth to teach a new generation just how funny and frightening a horror movie can be.
Forget unstoppable goons like Freddy or Jason. True horror is when it's hard to tell who the real monsters are, the inbred, shotgun-toting Hatfields roaming the woods - or your so-called friends.
Roth, a voracious horror fan, knows that simply chopping off limbs is passe. If you really want to hit a nerve, take a pretty girl, infect her with a flesh-eating Ebola plague, watch her rot from the inside out, and jump back when she projectile vomits contaminated blood. Send a few boys on a mission to get help, knowing all along that they really won't click with the natives.
And when the local police come by, hide the women.
Rider Strong, best known for his years on ABC's "Boy Meets World," is Paul, an awkward, hormone-befuddled youth plotting to get it on at the cabin with longtime friend Karen (Jordan Ladd). Jeff (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent) are the group's sexpot couple and Bert (James DeBello) is the gang's beer-drinking, dumb-[filtered word] dude.
Together they manage to violate any number of social norms - and their behavior just gets worse as the stakes get higher.
It's not often that the words artistry and horror are used in the same sentence, but "Cabin Fever" has a sophisticated color palate and nifty dialogue. Background colors shift from soft yellow to queasy orange to rotting black - with intense flashes of red when the blood starts flowing. Fear is out there - and the colors accentuate it.
While no horror movie could get by without some traditional dialogue - Jeff's "I made it!" speech and Marcy's "Hello, hello, is anyone there?" - Paul has a surreal, David Lynch-like conversation with a police deputy in which he realizes the inmates are guarding the asylum. The policeman wants to party.
In the land of smart choices, that would be a "No."
With a slaughtered pig, wild-eyed toothless yokels and a feral autistic boy among its cast, "Cabin Fever" made me want to run out and rent "Deliverance" again just to chalk up all the references. I swear I even heard a banjo somewhere in composer Nathan Barr's music.
What "Cabin Fever" has that "Deliverance" doesn't is plenty of humor. It takes a sicko person to laugh when others are dying of that flesh-eating disease, but golly, that demon deer is funny. And everyone knows that bad things happen when you poke a dead body.
Just don't pet the dog.
Released by Lions Gate Films, "Cabin Fever" is rated R for strong violence and gore, sexuality, language and brief drug use. Running time: 94 minutes Three stars out of four.