18 April 2012

IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY, YOU'RE SURE OF A BIG SURPRISE

I can't even remember the last time that we had a horror movie that became such a talking point across such a wide range of cinephiles, so praise be to the long-delayed The Cabin in the Woods for that reason all by itself; though whether it's actually categorically responsible to refer to The Cabin in the Woods as a "horror movie" is less clear-cut, I think, than conventional wisdom would seem to have it. And I must also part with conventional wisdom in claiming that the movie is a hotbed of spoilers and even accidentally reading the headline of a review will ruin the experience for you: to be perfectly honest, I don't see how any reasonably attentive viewer couldn't see the general shape of the thing by the end of the third scene, and around the 30-minute mark, it's all clear enough that the only real spoil-able moment is a swell cameo at the end, that I shall not spoil, other than to say that the performer in question is starting to make a habit of doing this sort of thing and I enjoy it.

But, you've got your warning: spoilers all over the damn place. I genuinely don't think they matter. The whole entire point of the film is that you're always a step ahead of the B-plot and at least two steps ahead of the A-plot. Still, anyway, watch out.

Now, I will concede at the start that at the onset, Cabin had to do virtually nothing for me to like it, and could almost certainly not do enough for me to love it. It has met those expectations - the only thing it needed to win my approval was to be a better post-modern deconstruction of horror movies than Scream, which was written by Kevin Williamson; Cabin, as you might have heard if you're really paying attention to the minutest esoterica in the darkest corners of the internet, was produced and co-written by Joss Whedon, who is basically the smarter version of Williamson and has been ever since 1997. And then, Whedon is also the film's biggest limitation, because for all that he is clever and then some in nearly everything he does, there's a certain slapdash quality to his genre riffs (and pretty much everything he's ever done is to some degree a genre riff), where it's pretty clear that he thinks he knows more than he actually does. And sure enough he and co-writer Drew Goddard, who also directed and therefore deserves more of the credit for what what Cabin is than I've seen him getting, anyway, put together a movie that was clearly made by two boys who did a hell of a lot of homework, but still manage to drift on some points; among them being that the "lonely cabin in the woods" isn't actually a hugely common horror trope, showing up more in films making fun of horror than in legitimate straight horror itself (in fact, other than The Evil Dead, I'm not certain I can name a single non-ironic version of the trope; plenty of summer camps, but no lonely isolated cabins).

This is all, however, largely beside the point.

The Cabin in the Woods is a movie about a group of five friends who travel to a, um, cabin in the woods, there to spend the weekend. What they don't realise is that this cabin is in the middle of a massive high-tech controlled reality where a whole corporate hierarchy full of drab businesspeople are engaged in creating optimal cheesy horror movie shocks and violent deaths, in what I persist in believing is a cockeyed slam on Hostel, which is also about drab businessmen blandly killing young people in a controlled environment. Which is the last time I'll play "spot the reference", because to a certain degree, Cabin is nothing else but references, and a huge part of the fun for the horror aficionados to whom the film is catering (even more than it caters to Whedon's already robust fanbase) lies in spotting all the in-jokes and such. And quite a lot of fun it is, particularly in a shot late in the movie that seems to exist solely because one day, the film will be on DVD and we can pause on it and figure out what each and every thing onscreen is spoofing.

Anyway: the five kids in the cabin - innocent Dana (Kristen Connolly); brooding intellectual hunk Holden (Jesse Williams), with whom she's being set up; girly-girl Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth, who worked on this set long before his stint as Thor), whose cousin owns the cabin; and pothead Marty (Fran Kranz, mugging like an Adam Sandler sidekick, the only weak link in the cast or even the film as a whole) - almost immediately realise that spooky, inexplicable things are happening, and the sharper among the group (Dana and Marty) also note how very much out-of-character everyone's acting; almost like they slot in neatly to the stock horror movie figures carved into granite over the course of the 1980s. Thankfully, they do not state this outright; there is no outspoken post-Scream moment where anybody points out that it's just like they're in a movie, and this is a huge part of the reason that the film is so much better than all of the other meta-horror in the last 15 years.

We, meanwhile, are well aware that the reason things are so strange, and everyone is behaving so oddly, is that they're under the control of a team of white-shirted technicians, led by worker bees Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), who control everything from the outside temperature to the chemicals seeping into the kids' bodies via their hair, their marijuana, and even the air around them. It's all very much like The Truman Show (which is given a nod), and even more like The Hunger Games, which wasn't yet anything approaching a cultural phenomenon when Cabin was produced, but it still says something that of the two films from the first third of 2012 that heavily focus on a team of bloodless bureaucrats playing young people like rats in a maze in front of an infinity of cameras and with the apparent idea of producing populist entertainment, the one that is far more intelligent about its concept and more rigorous about how that concept would work in the "real" or at least real-enough world, is not the one that's making shit-tons of money.

The "apparent" idea, because it turns out that the real secret behind all of this is a world-wide conspiracy of Lovecraftian dimensions - and I love, love, love that Whedon and Goddard don't just tip their hat to nearly every tradition of cinematic horror, but to literary ones as well - that mostly serves to give everything an extra layer of what I am compelled to call "absurdity" for want of a more precise term. But it is sort of absurd, all of it: the movie's contention that the formalism of the Dead Teenager Slasher-style plot has ritualistic and socio-cultural roots stretching back to pre-history, presented without an apparent whisper of irony or sarcasm or tongue-in-cheek reserve, for that exact reason ends up being one of the funniest things about the movie.

And make no mistake, The Cabin in the Woods is a comedy - a comedy with lots of deep dark mood lighting and blood and tottering zombie rednecks, but a comedy. A comedy, plus a satire, plus a parody, all adding up to the conclusion that horror movie formulas are just so effing damn stupid that ascribing all of it to the machinations of an Elder God cult is practically sane in relationship. What it really just isn't, is horror: for horror depends on the intrusion of the uncanny, perverse, and inexplicable into the mundane and normal. Cabin does exactly the opposite, taking the uncanny, perverse, and inexplicable, and intruding the mundane into that; rationalising every slasher and monster and Thing Going Bump as the by-product of a world of office betting pools, petty quibbling about bureaucratic responsibilities, and conference calls (the conference call scene in this movie is, for serious, the funniest thing I have seen all year and then some). It is, in fact, anti-horror, and that is exactly what makes it an effective piece of commentary on what legitimate horror is - it is light-years from Scream, a horror movie acting like it was above horror, for this is aspiring to be horror when it is not. And my respects to those who managed to be creeped out by the kids' misadventures, but I was as resolutely not-scared as I think I've ever been at a movie with so much blood and monsters.

So, here's where... I don't want to say that it all falls apart, because it doesn't exactly do that. The thing is, the movie is extraordinarily clever without being all that smart, and most of its observations are pretty surface-level stuff, dressed up largely by the wit of the screenplay, the absurdly great performances by Jenkins and Whitford (who turns out to be even better with Whedonesque prattle-speak than with Sorkinese) and the general bone-dry humor of the office scenes, which are about as good a jab at the morality and politics of horror-watching as any of us could hope for, and Goddard's nifty swiveling from tone to tone - present from the very first moments, in which a series of friezes of ancient ritual sacrifices, covered in blood, cuts to a '70s-looking coffee vending machine. But ultimately, for all the outstanding gags dotting the whole picture, it's not a satire of horror as a whole genre, but of a very specific horror movie that doesn't necessarily exist outside of Whedon and Goddard's minds (the best we can say is that it's a parody of The Evil Dead, but that doesn't feel like what they're gunning for, and if they were, Evil Dead II already did it better). And by virtue of operating somewhere outside of the actual horror genre, it sacrifices a bit of applicability as a commentary on the act of watching a horror movie; whereas e.g. Drag Me to Hell, to name drop yet another Sam Raimi movie, makes us constantly aware of what we're doing by watching this horror movie right now, The Cabin in the Woods makes us aware of what we're doing when we're watching those horror movies other than this one. It is a small difference and somewhat disappointing.

That being said, the movie's an absolute delight; though I will not vouch for the delight apt to be received by those not well-versed in the genre it so playfully references and mocks. My feeling right now is that it's more of a frivolous lark with some good ideas than a potent, lasting piece of meta-commentary or generic deconstruction, but larks have their place too, and I will anyway credit The Cabin in the Woods with being intensely committed to its premise even to the loopy-nihilistic ending; a commitment rare enough in any mainstream filmmaking, but especially in the lowest-common-denominator striving of most genre fare.

7/10? I don't know. I walked out of the theater thinking 7/10, but I also feel like I just wrote an 8/10 review. I dug it, let's not worry about numbers.

10 comments:

Christopher Neeson said...

Although it's no fault of the movie, as it was filmed much earlier, it's cameo is somewhat spoiled by being similar to the one that the same actor made in Paul.

KingKubrick said...

Spot on Tim. I felt the same way. It didn't live up to the hype of being the next revolution in horror but it was exceptionally entertaining.

I'm with you in thinking that the deconstruction actually hit a very narrow and specific subgenre of horror.

(spoilers)
The point Whedon and Goddard tried to make is that any of the monsters in the underground laboratory (Zombies, Redneck torture Zombies, decapitation gremlins etc) could be inserted into the generic plot. However, in the end the formula and stock characters are only truly applicable to the slasher formula (there is a monolithic number of slasher films admittedly), which leaves out a wide array of horror films that don't fit that mold. They do touch on alot of common tropes like the use of a magical macguffin to initiate the plot but they take aim at a specific subgenre rather than horror itself. The film is by no means a failure. It's extremely entertaining. It's just not as smart as it's hyped to be or thinks it is.

Vianney said...

shot in the dark: Billy Crystal?

polynomialpal said...

No, It's not Billy Crystal.

I agree that the movie isn't as smart as it could be. Even taken as a deconstruction of just the slasher subgenre, the points it's making are so readily apparent to anybody with enough knowledge to appreciate most of the in-jokes as to be redundant.

I think that the visual design of the movie is fantastic. I especially love the scene where the monsters are unleashed on the security patrol and they paint the whole room red with blood. It's a really sharp contrast to the muddy brown scenes in the woods where there is hardly any blood or on-screen gore.

I am also in love with the shot of Hadley standing with his arms out wide in front of the screens, at the end of the zombie reanimation sequence, as he declares the results of the betting pool.

Eugene said...

Just an aside -- I haven't read your review yet for the spoilery reasons I am about to discuss:

I think you, and movie critics generally, overestimate how predictable plots are to average movie-goers. For all that I go to the movies regularly, you've seen at least an order of magnitude more movies than me, maybe two orders of magnitude. This has lots of subtle and not-so-subtle impacts on how you experience film compared to me, but I'm convinced that one is that you are much, much better at predicting what's going to happen than me.

To give you an example, I recall that you thought the twist in Shutter Island was absurdly obvious. I saw it with three friends: all of us smart ladies and gentlemen. None of us predicted what was actually going on until, literally, Leo was running up the steps in the lighthouse. I expect this is because you have seen many more movies with a similar structure to Shutter Island than I have, so you recognised the various options in terms of how the plot might play out and mentally eliminated the possibilities without having to think too much about it.

So I'd just suggest that you actually have an extremely non-standard and unavoidably biased view of what is and is not predictable in terms of plots, because you have seen SO MANY MORE MOVIES than most people.

Tim said...

Eugene- That's a completely fair point. I do think, though, that this particular movie absolutely expects us to connect the dots ahead of time, especially in the first two acts. How much we're supposed to be able to predict the last act... hard to say. But a big part of the fun lies in our being ahead of the characters.

jjjonatron said...

i thought the movie was freaking incredible, and its my choice for movie of the year so far haha.

yeah it's not as smart as it could be, i guess, but i never really took it as more than it was--a really funny movie about horror movies, featuring gods as the motive, which i'm pretty much always on board with; anything bat-shit crazy i'm down for really, like the ending of gregg araki's KABOOM which i adore, or CRANK 2.

basically i took it as the CRANK of the horror movie world, and while you happen to only moderately enjoy those movies, i would die for them (but particularly CRANK 2), and i would kill for this one now too.

I DUNNO MAN, I SAW IT TWICE BEFORE OPENING WEEKEND WAS OVER. bout to see it a third time as well, this week. and i haven't even seen a movie in theaters full-price since toy story 3, truth.

Rebecca said...

Accidentally reading the headline of a review will ruin the experience for you? So are you telling me the twist ending is that it's all about teddy bears having a picnic and none of the people in the cabin went in disguise?

The.Watcher said...

@jjj- glad im not the only one with an obscene love for crank 2.

I just watched this and I absolutely fucking loved every single second of it. Its been about 3 hours since the credits rolled and I still canr stop grinning like a schoolboy. Havent had this much fun at the movies since raimis drag me to hell.

bobfreville said...

I agree with Eugene even though I, myself, am a freelance writer who has written of movies in much the same terms as this blogger--it's unfair to judge a movie on its predictability when that is a purely subjective thing and doesn't necessarily reflect how the uninitiated cinephile will feel. I also agree with jjjonatron, this movie is easily the first flick of the year that's worth repeat viewings; I saw it at 9pm and, at 6:30 am I wished I was back in the theater for round two.

And even as someone jaded by constant film devouring I refuse to believe that anyone could have predicted the outcome after Richard Jenkins said, "Kill him." Everything from thereon out was fair game...