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 411mania » Movies » Film Reviews

The Cabin in the Woods Review [2]
Posted by Jeremy Wilson on 04.15.2012

Directed by: Drew Goddard
Written by: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard

Dana: Kristen Connolly
Curt: Chris Hemsworth
Jules: Anna Hutchison
Marty: Fran Kranz
Holden: Jesse Williams
Sitterson: Richard Jenkins
Hadley: Bradley Whitford
Truman: Brian White
Lin: Amy Acker
Mordecai: Tim De Zarn
Ronald the Intern: Tom Lenk

Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, druge use and some sexuality/nudity.
Running Time: 105 minutes

*I've tried to avoid as many potential spoilers for this film as possible. Some minor spoilers taken from the film's trailer and interviews with the filmmakers, however, are contained within this review. If you don't want to know, read it later. If you don't care, read on.*

I don't know if The Cabin in the Woods heralds the end of horror as we know it, as some have suggested. It feels like a rebirth more than anything. This is a film that not only plays with and satirizes the conventions and boundaries of horror and horror-comedy, it lays down a challenge to everything that follows in its wake. It's not only one of the most intelligent horror films of recent years, but one of the most intelligent films to come out. Period. Its greatest strength is that it works incredibly well as horror, horror-comedy and satire. It does all this not with a wink and a nod, but with a chainsaw and sledgehammer. It doesn't just reference classic (and not-so-classic) horror films; it takes them apart, dissects them, puts them back together and explains why these conventions are the way they are. To everyone who complains about the state of modern Hollywood and the industry's penchant for releasing dumb-as-nails, copycat horror films, you have no excuse. Much like they say about voting, if you don't see The Cabin in the Woods, you lose the right to complain later on.

That being said, I can understand the skepticism from some who are naturally suspicious of festival darlings that get a huge bump in buzz from critics and fanboys. And when Joss Whedon is involved, that level of pre-release buzz tends to be even higher than usual. The Cabin in the Woods finally premiered at SXSW last month, generating the kind of buzz and critical raves that tend to make waves among film aficionados and amateur critics, but don't always translate to box office success or mass appeal. Another reason the buzz meter has been high for this film is its long strange journey to theaters. Wrapping production in mid-2009, Cabin in the Woods became a victim – along with the likes of The Hobbit and 007 – of MGM's bankruptcy. Originally scheduled to be released on February 5th, 2010, its release date was pushed back a year so that it could be post-converted to 3D. Four months later, MGM announced the film's release would be indefinitely delayed due to the difficulties at MGM. Nearly a year after that, MGM, with a new regime in place, decided to sell some of the last remaining films in its slate. In came Lionsgate who scrapped the 3D post-conversion and finally scheduled the film for release this month. All the while Whedon and horror fanboys waited with baited breath.

To attempt to describe or talk about the plot and characters of The Cabin in the Woods is nearly impossible without spoiling. I tend to take a film-by-film approach when it comes to possible spoilers, but even I wouldn't want to ruin it for anyone even semi-interested. Needless to say, the film starts out as one would expect one of the Friday the 13th sequels to: five college(ish) students pack and head out for a mini-vacation to a friend's cabin in the woods. They even fall along standard horror character tropes: the jock, the babe, the smart one with glasses, the stoner and the goodhearted, cautious virgin. They are about as stock as stock characters can get (who actually become more stock as the film progresses). They even come across the weird, creepy guy who runs a seemingly abandoned, old-fashioned gas pump on their way to the cabin. You know, the kind of character that might make normal, sane people think twice before continuing on. Once up at the cabin, the group encounters...something evil. To say anymore, would ruin the fun. And from there, all hell breaks loose.

But before we're introduced to this group of horror cliches, the film actually starts with something very different. If you walked into The Cabin in the Woods expecting the typical slasher or supernatural horror film, watching Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins talk about family, women and weekend plans in a typical, sterile-looking office, will probably throw you off. Amy Acker joins the conversation and informs the pair that “Stockholm just went south.” This leads to a discussion about Japan and...well none of this opening is anything remotely close to the kinds of horror films we've seen in the past. Until the film's title comes up, which garners the film's first – of many – laughs. However, we realize early on, that something is up and that there are a lot of surprises in store.

Films described as smart and “meta” tend to divide audience. Oftentimes, “meta” movies tend to either skewer genre and film conventions to the point that it drives genre fans away, or conversely panders to those fans without really commenting on them. The best do neither, but instead simultaneously deconstruct and rebuild those conventions. Ultimately, they reaffirm viewers' love and appreciation for the genre and movies in general. Obviously, the first movies that come to mind while watching the film are the horror classics which Cabin in the Woods simultaneously satirizes and pays homage to: Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, Scream and nearly every other horror classic one could imagine. The best attribute of The Cabin in the Woods is that it perfectly toes that line; it sandwiches a horror film within a sci-fi/fantasy conspiracy movie within a larger horror tale (on a larger scale). In skewering the conventions of the genre, it manages to somehow reaffirm those same conventions; not in a way that makes dumb, genre material better but points to why we are drawn to these stories in the first place. It not only works as great satire, but as a great horror film. It calls to mind and equals other “meta” genre classics (not limited to horror), like Scream, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Tropic Thunder, Blazing Saddles, Austin Powers, Young Frankenstein and Evil Dead II.

The difference between Cabin in the Woods and a film like Scream which it has been repeatedly compared to? It's cooler, hipper and more inventive. It is also missing that film's rather smug surface statement of the connection between horror and the viewer. Don't get me wrong; I like Scream and do think of it as a modern horror classic. Scream was a satire of slasher films, a work that pointed out genre conventions and cliches of a sub-genre that had grown tired and stale. It did this primarily through dialogue and was the right film at the right time, often replicated but never quite duplicated. However, it was often content to merely mention the conventions of slasher films without exploring them; they didn't really tackle those conventions and cliches much beyond merely referencing them with a wink or an appearance by Ghostface. Scream ultimately remained a slasher flick in and of itself. Goddard and company weren't content with merely paying homage to these conventions or even simply turning them inside out. The heart of Cabin in the Woods is not simply to make fun, but to explore, to continually look at different horror stories from different cultures and eras and to ask: Why are we as a species drawn to horror stories? Do we tell these tales in order to create our monsters and myths, or to contain them? What make scary stories something so universal, as to be found in every culture throughout our history?

By design, The Cabin in the Woods transforms itself into something else entirely. Not content to play by and break one genre's rules, Goddard and Whedon use everything from ancient mythology to the Monster Manual in creating their own scary story. The level of ambition and amount of knowledge about horror, comedies, science fiction, fantasy and mythology inherent within this film's screenplay is really what separates it and causes people to feel like it has “blown up the horror genre.” There are similarities to the pair's previous work with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the pace is quickened, the tension is higher and the blood flows more freely. Previous “meta” horror films from the '90s such as Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend resulted in sequels. Without spoiling the end, trust me when I say it is quite evident that Goddard and Whedon have no desire for a sequel. I couldn't even imagine what one would look like.

While it is unlikely that Hollywood will stop churning out stupid, cheap and insipid horror films, The Cabin in the Woods holds at least some potential to make it harder for them to succeed (obviously dependent on Cabin's box office success and ability to reach as many viewers as possible). Here is a film that isn't content to throw the same old formula up on the screen. Here is something that actively wants to keep viewers engaged and thinking. As with the cabin's one-way mirrors (found in its trailer), Goddard's film is watching us as much as we are watching it. It cares about the action and characters on the screen, but more importantly wants viewers to knowingly agree to go along for the ride. It works hard to challenge the notion that the same, stale, formulaic horror is good enough. It doesn't want to kill horror; there is a lot of love inherent for the classics of the genre. What it wants is for horror to move on, to progress, get smarter, scarier...better. Blazing Saddles didn't kill the western. But Brooks' comedy came at a time when westerns – as a genre – had already passed their peak and his film was widely seen as one of the last nails in the coffin with regards to the genre's mainstream appeal. It poked fun and exposed some of the staleness and weakness of westerns (like the genre's inherent racism). The Cabin in the Woods shouldn't be the end of horror; it should mark a new beginning.

What also really excited me was that The Cabin in the Woods wasn't just a great meta-horror film. It's so good and so smart that it works equally well as a critique of Hollywood itself. Without going into too much detail (and necessary spoilers), it also brought to mind a film like Sunset Boulevard. In reality, Cabin in the Woods is nothing like Sunset Boulevard. I merely mention that film because it was one that popped into my head while looking back at Cabin. Billy Wilder's film wasn't the first to tackle Hollywood, but it remains widely seen as one of the first that took a darker, more cynical take on Hollywood. That picture, even at the time, felt like something people hadn't quite seen before. That's what Cabin in the Woods feels like. Cabin has so many elements sprinkled in that it is nearly impossible to make a direct, one-to-one correlation with any one film. The Whitford-Jenkins pairing is ostensibly the film's sci-fi subplot and perhaps where the strongest satire of Hollywood itself is evident. It's not hard to imagine their roulette-like whiteboard (you'll see) out of place at a meeting of studio heads and hired writers. One can even see plot similarities with a film like Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, even though the latter movie wasn't released until last month. The glee in which those watching our tortured group of coeds also plays into a 21st century, tech-savvy culture whose biggest sin might be its penchant for creepy voyeurism. It just goes to show that it isn't necessary to have completely new, original plot elements. What matters is what you do with those elements.

Instead of simply repeating genre cliches and conventions, Goddard and Whedon use them to continually feed and expand the story, and thus, expand the satire itself. It is something to behold. If it were easy to do, we'd have seen it done like this a long time ago. But it's not and both deserve credit for crafting a high-quality screenplay, while Goddard deserves credit for getting it all across on screen. This could have easily gotten away from his grasp, but Cabin never feels loose or sloppy. On the contrary, it is tight, constantly keeping the screws turning on its audience as they wait for what comes next. They technically break the fourth wall, but in actuality it never feels like it. You are invested in these characters, in their futures and in the story at large. Goddard and Whedon's ending is not only appropriate, it is hard to imagine it could be done any other way.

The cast have a lot to handle and they're all pretty great. Hemsworth, Connolly and Kranz, in particular, all give really strong performances. Hemsworth having to toggle back and forth what kind of character he is playing is especially strong. Connolly “plays the virgin” and straight character (to some of her more zany co-stars) quite well. Kranz, known to Whedon fans for his work in Dollhouse, is probably the breakout star (perhaps with Connolly) as the funny stoner who catches on to more than he should. Consummate pros like Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins and Amy Acker are great as well, even though they are essentially inhabiting a different movie from their younger counterparts. To top it off, the cameo at the end (which I hope won't be spoiled for you going in) is about as appropriate as you could get. The effects are strong, a nice mixture of CGI and down-to-Earth, basic makeup and design. This film is an homage to the films of the 20th century, but in many ways feels very much like a 21st century movie.

It's always exciting coming out of great movie giddy and with the immediate desire to watch it all over again. It is equally exciting to experience a film like this with an audience comprising something of a cross-section of filmgoers. Some walked in knowing the pre-release buzz and knowing what Joss Whedon's name attached to it meant. I'm guessing a good number had no real clue what they were in for. But when all was said and done and the lights had come up, applause broke out from the majority of the theater. This wasn't something I was expecting. Usually, the kinds of films that garner applause at its conclusion are big, summer franchise movies which have a large number of built-in (and younger) fans such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Another time I hear it is among older crowds who have just finished a “serious” award contender or festival entry. Rarely does spontaneous applause break out for a horror-comedy satire with so much going on. This is especially remarkable if a good number weren't quite sure what they were getting themselves into, yet were turned by the film's quality. As I stood to leave the theater, the middle-aged man sitting a few seats down the row looked at me and said something which was seconded by an eavesdropping teenage girl in front of us.

“I don't think horror will ever be the same.”

The 411The Cabin in the Woods is one of the smartest and most wildly inventive films in recent memory. It works equally well as horror and horror-comedy. Its satire is sharp but not to the point of driving genre fans away. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have crafted a screenplay so chock full of imagination and subversion that it rivals the kind of grasp and knowledge of cinematic history that filmmakers such as Scorsese, P.T. Anderson or Tarantino routinely showcase. Simply put, it is one of the best cinematic satires we've ever seen. The cast, including Thor's Chris Hemsworth, Dollhouse's manic Fran Kranz and relative newcomer Kristen Connolly are all great in exemplifying and subverting the character tropes given to them. Consummate pros like Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins and Amy Acker are also strong. Trust me; the less you know, read or see about The Cabin in the Woods, the better. You deserve to be surprised and delighted by it, in the spoiler-free way Goddard and Whedon obviously intended. Recommended.
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  9.5   [  Amazing ]  legend


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