Both cries from the all-American wilderness, Robb Moss’s The Same River Twice and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever comprise a veritable yin-yang of landscape intercourse. In Moss’s memoir-doc, the initial vibe is distinctly idyllic. The film opens with a vision of heavenly 1960s residue: a relaxed crew of Colorado river guides, twentysomething, vibrantly fit, and completely nude, swimming and sunbathing in the canyon sunlight. As Moss’s intertitles explain, he spent a good number of his budding summers among this Rousseauvian tribe, and these lovingly shot 1978 segments were from one of his last trips downriver. (He later joined the film faculty at Harvard, where he still teaches.) Moss’s “riverdogs” (the title for his 1982 short using the same raw footage) were a democratic, never-grow-up commune who “needed a good reason to put clothes on,” and for whom deciding whether or not to spend another gorgeous day on a particular riverbank was about as strenuous as dilemmas got. These genial images have a totemic vitality: This is paradise, clearly, an almost tragically temporary haven from responsibility, work, social decorum, and worst of all, the pillage of time and aging.
Moss knows it, and most of The Same River Twice is taken up with visiting his hippie-dippie consorts today, muddling through suburban middle age and work-life. Shaggy flower child Barry has become a hospital administrator and small-town mayor; lithe brunette Danny is now an overexercised aerobics instructor and supermom; adoring couple Cathy and Jeff have split, he evolving into a novelist and radio host, she into another mayor. Jim, the group’s hardcore river god (“We were all Jim-ists,” Moss says in his sparse narration), remained a guide and lives off the land, now socially awkward but stubbornly true to his youthful anti-ambitions. It’s a generous document of cultural passage, and not incidentally, the sexiest naturally nudist American movie since Murnau’s Tabu. Moss, however, keeps himself out of the picture and neglects massive amounts of context that might’ve made Same River a stunner. How did they all meet? How long did their endless summer last? Who was Moss to these people? What were their relationships off the river? Moss barely interviews his friends, opting instead to simply observe them parent, work, and bashfully view the 20-year-old movie clips of themselves cavorting without a worry in the world. The film settles for the heartbreaking contrast between youthful vibrance and the remorseless, disappointed side of 40, remaining too polite to dig deeper.
The Great Wide Open can be a hedonism park, but it can also be an awesome terror, and the new indie screamer Cabin Fever plugs into The Blair Witch Project‘s breathless dread of endless forest—although it more closely resembles genre riffs from the 1970s, when making a gory chiller with four friends and a patch of grim woods was de rigueur for drive-in exploitationeers. Technically, Eli Roth’s movie isn’t even horror: Five beautiful college friends head up to a remote cabin and soon enough stumble upon a hermit oozing with a cataclysmic bleed-out contagion. It’s too Ebola to be subtext. As viral Petits Guignols go, it’s both pragmatic—no zombies, just wildly infectious victims—and deliciously vicious; the film’s key moment involves cinema’s most disquieting finger-fuck.
Beginning with the sound of flies over the opening credits, Roth’s sure-handed movie is rife with queasy discomfort, from the hemorrhaging stranger despoiling a snazzy Jeep, to the hero (Rider Strong) pouring Listerine on his dick after impulse-screwing. (Whatever else, Roth’s is a refreshingly horny movie.) Roth never fully exploits the woods around him, and the homes of the locals are far too middle-class, but because so many clichés are discarded amid the flesh rot, even the patented Night of the Living Dead coda feels sharp-edged and genuine.