With so few movie productions happening right now thanks to COVID-19, it takes a certain amount of ingenuity and creativity to get a film made. And that sort of innovative thinking is what drives new local movie Cabin Fever, which was written, shot, directed, and edited during lockdown with the actors all remotely filming themselves with the guidance of director Tim Greene. We have read stories of filmmakers working on projects during a lockdown period, but this film bills itself as the first full-length feature to be made during the lockdown and whether that is true or not I’m not sure. Either way, it is great to see such ambition and quick thinking coming out of South Africa. It is just a pity that the cleverness died during the conceptualization because the final film is sadly not so good.
Cabin Fever is essentially a story that takes place during a global lockdown from the Corona pandemic… but a real global lockdown as the entire world is shut behind closed doors after what is already the second year of strict quarantine (let’s hope that doesn’t ring true!). The story centres on a small circle of family and friends and their efforts to survive the isolation of lockdown while navigating family issues, death, and a strong desire to try and reconnect with each other. And all of it plays out through a series of video calls they have with each other.
I have to give credit to Greene here for his idea around a story in lockdown that also allowed the actors to film it organically. We’ve seen a few movies using this “screenlife” approach – to use the term coined by filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov – but the narrative always had to jump through hoops to justify why everybody only talked to each other digitally. Here it all makes perfect sense. And it definitely also helps that the quality of the at-home filing is actually pretty good. I’ve seen many “more professional” found footage films that look sloppy compared to Cabin Fever and it perhaps speaks volumes of both the quality of cameras available in phones these days as well as the strength of the actors to be able to execute their shots under direction and get the angles Greene was going for.
In fact, credit should go to the actors (Jenna Upton, Keenan Arrison, Ndoni Knanyile, James Cunningham, Michelle Scott, Skye Russell, Bonko Khoza, Tem Muller, Lesego Chabedi, Jessica Pietersen Scott and Angela Lieveaux) who do a stellar job in bringing much of this film any sense of character. The dialogue is unfortunately weak and the overall story isn’t much to work with, but the cast members really make the most of it through their witty banter and relatability, resulting in a lot of their friendships and chemistry feeling appreciably authentic.
The biggest problem lies with the overall story of Cabin Fever, which goes nowhere. And I don’t just mean in terms of the actors and their restricted movement – the story literally goes nowhere. Yes, things happen and relationships develop and lives are threatened, but there is no big plot that holds the pieces of this movie together. Even the climax is a little rushed with certain threads never fully resolved.
You kind of get the impression that the film was put together quickly through this great idea for a lockdown film but then they kind of ran out of steam and still just went with it. You get this from a lot of the clunky dialogue that feels purposeless where characters trade insults or dialogue with each other that don’t really add value to the core script. This combined with the story just meandering and going nowhere really derails the experience.
Ironically, while the abovementioned beats could have been edited out, many other scenes feel far too short. The connection of video interactions are mostly brief and there are not enough scenes that really allow for characters to develop. I do understand that this makes the filming and delivery a lot easier for the actors, but you lose connection to the characters and the story jumps around more than perhaps it should. In fact, the movie’s best moments are when the characters are together for longer interactions.
And while Cabin Fever’s story can be best described as a drama, you shouldn’t really expect any dramatic moments. It tries to throw some romance or comedy at you, but none of it really sticks. If Greene and co had perhaps tried to build the concept around a horror story, or amped the tone in one of the aforementioned genres it would’ve arguably been better. Instead, it feels flat and purposeless, like its underlying story.
I do commend everyone involved though, including the cast who filmed this in their different homes from around South Africa and several other foreign cities. The coordination and effort to make these different video calls work and get the strong performances we did, show incredible commitment to the craft. It’s just a pity that it was all a bit wasted. We will probably see more lockdown movies in the near future if this pandemic drags on, but I do hope that they use the time to just put together a better plot before doing so.
Cabin Fever is set to premiere on DStv Box Office this Wednesday, 5 August 2020.
Last Updated: August 4, 2020