Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods Movie Review

Joss Whedon has built a strong cult following around his projects that have a tendency to subvert genre conventions and put a new spin on familiar stories. His short-lived TV series “Firefly” and the follow-up film Serenity was a sci-fi space western. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which most people forget was a movie before it was a popular TV show starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, took the dumb blonde caricature who is always the first to die in horror films and made her the hero, an ass-kicking, smart-talking, wooden stake-wielding defender of humanity. As co-writer along with Drew Goddard, who directs, and producer of The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon turns his attention to the slasher/horror/torture porn set of genres and sub-genres.


The film starts with two disparate film tropes – a quintet of youngsters headed for an obviously doomed party weekend at the secluded titular abode, and white-collared bureaucrats in an underground control center speaking cryptically about the job they’re doing – whose common thread is slowly revealed as the plot moves along. Part of the fun of watching is in guessing how one affects the other and why. I admit that I was slightly mistaken in my early judgment about the eventual outcome.

The five people headed to the cabin are types that will be familiar to anyone who has spent a bit of time with the horror genre. There’s Jules (Ann Hutchison), a blonde who’s fun and ready for a tumble with boyfriend Kurt (Chris Hemsworth), an impossibly good-looking athlete type. There’s the marijuana smoking smart ass, Marty (Fran Kranz); a studious (and almost as handsome as Kurt) intellectual named Holden (Jesse Williams); and of course there’s Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virginal, if not exactly virgin, good girl who wants to bring her books with her for the weekend. We recognize them as stock characters and Whedon and Goddard ultimately lead us to a convincing explanation for their existence as such. I just wish they’d given them more interesting things to say and do before they start getting offed one-by-one. I suppose enduring turgid dialogue is part of the point, but it doesn’t make the overall experience any more worthwhile. That it’s a part of the commentary they’re making about mass-consumed pop culture in general and horror movies specifically is an excuse that doesn’t hold up to heavy scrutiny.

The bureaucrats, on the other hand, are much more fun to be around, if for no other reason than the acting talent is considerably greater. The roles of Sitterson and Hadley demand more in the way of convincing emotional expression and comic timing. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are more than up to the challenge and anytime they’re on screen I breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to possibly hear something witty or intelligent.

When Scream came out 16 years ago, it was the first movie to outwardly call attention to itself as a horror film by invoking the conventions of the genre and using those conventions to great comic effect while also being a genuinely frightening film. It ushered in an era of self-aware and, quite frankly, really bad horror films. Whedon and Goddard are out to do something similar, although they’re not really very successful at creating a scary movie. But I’m not even sure that was their intention. They call attention to the conventions of the genre, but without the characters’ awareness of their own presence within it like those in Scream. One character very wisely advises, "Don't read the Latin," when they find an old diary in the cellar. The way the ill-fated bunch in the cabin are manipulated into their situation has a very meta, post-ironic tinge to it.

I don’t want to give away too much, but it eventually becomes part slasher, part thriller, part zombie, and also in the moments when the filmmakers achieve their goals, something entirely original in itself. They invoke obvious references to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a stopover at a deserted gas station outfitted with animal pelts and bones and a creepy Redneck who makes an oblique reference to “the war” and to The Evil Dead, which provides the inspiration for the premise. SPOILER AHEAD (skip to next paragraph): The movie is at times a great deal of fun, especially in the chaotic closing sequence which answers the question, “What would happen if the monsters and ghouls from every horror story ever created were unleashed upon the world?” It’s in these moments when the filmmakers just let loose and allow themselves to have a good time. We’re not meant to take any of this very seriously, as evidenced by the presence of a murderous unicorn.

END SPOILERS

There are occasional lapses in logical consistency in order to sell a joke or for the convenience of the plot. I’m mostly able to forgive these because at the end of the day, this is not only one of the most original horror movies I’ve seen, but it’s probably the most competently made one of the last 15 years at least. Cinematographer Peter Deming (who has worked in the genre before, including all the Scream sequels) and Goddard know how to stage and shoot the action coherently. I was never confused about where any of the characters were with respect to one another or the cabin.

Where Whedon and Goddard are really at their best is in crafting a film that makes subtle comments about multiple aspects regarding the state of pop culture today. The Cabin in the Woods can be read as critique on reality TV as well as the way the horror and torture porn genres are designed to excite and titillate us with violence and gore all while we gawk, growing ever more desensitized. There are hints of that with some characters coming across as almost completely removed from the human element of what happens in the cabin, even if there is something greater at stake.

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