Thursday, October 4, 2012

REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Whenever Joss Whedon puts out something new, I always know it will at least be worth looking at. The man is frankly inimitable, and while not everything he touches is absolute genius, it’s always a lot of fun and he has a great, witty and sort of playful style to everything he touches that sort of plays with your expectations and straddles a line between goofy and serious, usually coming out the best of both worlds – it takes talent to balance comedy and drama and Whedon is good at it. But when talking about playing with an audience’s expectations, nothing in his catalog tops The Cabin in the Woods.

Director: Drew Goddard
Starring: Kristin Connolly, Fran Kranz

This is just a delight of a movie. Horror satire is nothing new. Movies have been doing it forever, and since Scream came out in the late 90s, it’s blown up into almost its own genre. But I frankly think this is one of the best satires of the genre I’ve ever seen. The trick with satire is to make a good movie anyway in spite of the jokes and riffing on whatever it is you’re making fun of. You can’t just throw in a bunch of cheap one liners like Scary Movie or something. There has to be a story to your satire that is independently entertaining and drives home a unified point. And in my opinion, the more out-there and ridiculous, the better the satire. I mean, the idea behind this is that there’s a secret government organization out there that sacrifices college kids to the Old Gods every year to keep the Earth safe – and they do this by re-enacting tired horror movie clichés. So there’s your answer: why do so many horror movies use the same tired formula over and over? Because if they didn’t, the Old Gods would destroy the Universe.

The Cabin in the Woods works because Whedon does play with your expectations. It starts off pretty innocuous; just a bunch of college kids going to, shock of all shocks, a cabin in the woods for the weekend. They’re better characters than is usual for these kinds of movies, and Whedon’s wry dialogue endows them with a greater sense of personality than is the norm. But mostly it just looks like it’s going to be a regular silly horror movie, only done up with the old Whedon charm and style. The characters laugh and sexual tension arises and they even find a bunch of creepy stuff in the attic – almost, you might say, a catalog of jumbled items that bring forth demonic entities in other films, compiled here all in one room…

What really sets the movie apart is the other scenes, featuring a bunch of scientists at this government building trying to orchestrate events so that the kids will die as sacrifices for the Old Gods. The scientists are pretty silly and mostly serve as comic relief, but the juxtaposition of these scenes with the more generic horror movie styled ones makes for a really entertaining and twisted romp. The settings are cool and bring new life to really dated and tired movie settings – the cold sterile laboratory and the woodsy cabin, both.

The final half hour is the real cincher with this as things blow up and get messy, fast. By the time our two remaining heroes break into the lab and encounter all the various monsters, you’re convinced this is the most fun you’ll have all year. There’s one scene right at the beginning of this sequence, in which every monster attacks a bunch of soldiers all at once, that is probably my favorite scene in any movie so far this year. It’s a masterpiece of chaos and destruction.

The problem with this whole thing is pretty easy to see, really: it’s not exactly a deep film, and doesn’t really have the dramatic gusto to rank up with Whedon’s best works. Despite being incredibly enjoyable, it doesn’t have that spark that elevates it into something truly great – not when stacked up with Whedon’s Angel, anyway, although holding up anything he does to that standard is a bit unfair. The Cabin in the Woods, though, for all its nudging jocular humor and spry wit, is a bit of a light snack for the seasoned Whedon fan. Maybe if it had been twenty minutes longer and established the individual characters more, it would flesh out into something amazing and more multi-layered (which I know he loves to do in other works), but as it is, it leaves you wanting more.

And also I think the movies this is satirizing have become fairly passé at this point, and are no longer the main evil among horror films. While very funny, I can’t help but think this film is making fun of a social stigma that almost no longer exists. Nobody really makes movies about dumbass kids going out in the woods anymore. Maybe if this had been made back in the late 80s it would have been truly gut-wrenching, but as is, this is a bit outdated, to be honest.

Despite the problems, Cabin in the Woods is still a really entertaining romp, and it’s a testament to Whedon’s skill that I can overlook my critical problems with the film and just take it as a big, silly and fun slice of cheese. Nothing about this is in any way dissatisfying on a purely aesthetic level. It’s one of the most fun films this year, and Whedon is practically winking at you from the sidelines the entire time, a silly, childlike grin on his face. That’s how this movie should always be watched. 

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