Monday, April 16, 2012

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS Takes a Bloody Axe To The Horror Genre!


- I've always had mixed feelings about horror movies. I love monsters. I love eerie, creepy, scary, shadowy stories. I love supernatural stories. I love Halloween. But I've also never been one of those Fangoria-reading horror fanboys who loves horror for the sake of gore and violence. In particular, the modern wave of torture-porn style horror flicks is not something that really appeals to me. Give me stuff with imagination, wit, and genuine style. Less Saw, more Evil Dead. Luckily, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard seem to feel similarly. With Cabin in the Woods, they've taken horror back to its basics, but through a postmodern prism that deconstructs the entire genre. They've gone back and made a horror movie about why we love horror movies - at at the same time, about how we as an audience have a love/hate relationship with these films. We demand something more than the same old cliches, and yet we expect them and get disappointed when films don't contain the classic genre tropes we've come to know through years of pop-culture brainwashing. If all that makes Cabin in the Woods sound like a much headier, more cerebral film than the usual horror flick, well, that's because it is. But please, don't get me wrong - while CABIN is a gleefully-imaginative mind-bender, it's also one of the most purely fun horror/sci-fi films I've seen in years. It's got multiple moments that reach right into the fanboy center of your brain and make you simply smile with delight.

Of course, the big thing with this movie is that, if you haven't seen it, it's best to go in knowing as little as possible. It's not that the movie's main themes and twists aren't apparent pretty early on, it's just that seeing how, exactly, things begin to diverge from the standard horror movie is a big part of the fun. Because Cabin starts in a way that feels very much like any cheesy slasher flick. In a brightly-lit suburb, 5 college friends make plans to go on a weekend excursion to - you guessed it - a cabin in the woods, recently purchased by one of the main character's relatives. At first glance, the group consists of all the usual horror flick stereotypes - the jock and his hot blonde girlfriend, his shy and brainy friend, a stoner/slacker type, and the cute, virginal girl. And soon enough, the movie begins to go through the motions that so many of these sorts of movies go through. We learn about the characters' relationships. Some potential for romance is hinted at. And the group drives off, away from the sunny suburbs and into the dark, foreboding woods - where, clearly, some sinister forces are just waiting for them to arrive.

All you really need to know, beyond that, is that this purposefully generic setup is merely the prelude for things to come. Things get crazy, weird, funny, and just plain insane - as we begin to realize that nothing is quite what it seems. Suffice it to say, knowing Whedon's history on properties like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and Goddard's role as a writer for LOST ... well, some of the big ideas explored in each of those series resurface here in fun and unexpected ways.

And what I will say is that the writing of this film has all of the snappy dialogue, irony-laced humor, and geeky pop-culture references that you'd expect from the men behind this movie. The movie can be scary, but what you'll remember most is just how funny and witty it is. And how many total nerd-out moments it contains. It's funny, because even though I suspected some of the twists, I still imagined that the film would be relatively small scale. But things get BIG. They get CRAZY. And certain things are hinted at where you think: "cool, but they're not actually going to *show* us that, are they?" But they do show us, and they do so in glorious fashion. Again, don't want to spoil anything, except to say: the last 30 minutes or so of CABIN IN THE WOODS are pure, unadulterated fanboy bliss that will make you melt into your 10-year-old self for a while.

It helps that there are some actors here who do a great job delivering Whedon and Goddard's funny and snappy dialogue. Of the main kids, the standouts to me were Kristen Connolly as the relatively naive and innocent Dana, and Fran Kranz as stoner and unlikely hero Marty. Both have some of the big, applause-worthy moments and both really do a nice job of walking that line between serious horror/drama and self-aware, self-mocking humor. Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor, is also quite good. That said, the two stars that end up sort of stealing the show are cagey vets Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. The two play parts that I can't really talk about without spoiling things, but I will say they do a fantastic job - confronting all manner of weirdness with a wonderfully droll, been-there, done-that demeanor. By the way, they're also joined by Whedon-fave Amy Acker, who is similarly good as one of the pair's colleagues.

I will also just add that the creature and f/x work in this film is fantastic. I don't know what the budget here was, but you get the sense that - even if they didn't have blockbuster money to spend - the filmmakers put a lot of love into every costume, every makeup job, and every bit of CGI. The character design is just fantastic, and there were a lot of scenes that will stick with you if only because the f/x and character work is so iconic and memorable. There's also some rip-roaring action choreography, especially near the end of the film.

If I have one complaint about the film, it's that the "meta" parts of the film end up being much more interesting than the "real" parts of the film. While the first act is peppered with hints that things are not what they seem, we do actually spend a lot of time watching what is, essentially, a pretty cliched cabin-in-the-woods movie. Point being: it takes a while to get to the good stuff. Yes, the payoffs are totally worth it, but you also get the sense that there is a lot more to explore around the "mythology" of the movie, that we don't have time for because, for a long time, the movie is playing it straight and trying to convince us that it's "just" a standard-issue slasher flick.

By the time the movie is finished though, I was on such a high from the last half-hour that it was hard to dwell much on the more slow and sedate first half of the movie. Ultimately, I just felt a huge appreciation for the fact that I had just seen something so original, so imaginative, and so fun. This movie clearly came from a place of geeky passion, and it 100% shows - and that passion is most definitely contagious. True, you may not get quite as much out of some of CABIN's key twists, reveals, references, and jokes if you're not well-versed in horror and pop-culture. But if you've seen your share of scary movies, then this one hits a sweet spot and flat-0ut delivers. This is a smart deconstruction of the horror genre, but more so than that - it's just a great time at the movies.

My Grade: A-

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