Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods

As much as I like horror films I do have to admit that they are growing a little stale. They all follow the same basic formula be it a slasher, monster movie or thriller. I’ve been waiting for something creative to come along for a while now, and even though there are some clever throwback movies floating around out there like the Hatchet films or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, nothing of note has come down the pike… until now.

SPOILER WARNING: If you have not seen this movie do not read any further!
The story of a group of five college friends who go on a vacation in the woods together and discover that they are unwilling participants in a sacrificial ritual to appease an ancient God who threatens to destroy the world.

The Cabin in the Woods is the wake-up call to the modern day horror genre that Scream was back in the mid-90s. Writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who also directs, take all the clichés associated with movies of this type, mixes them up and satirizes as well as puts a new spin on them.

Why do characters in horror movies do such stupid things like split up during a crisis, have sex for no apparent reason or feel the need to explore dark basements after being warned of their dangers? Well, in the universe in which this flick takes place their every move is being controlled by drugs that are being pumped into the cabin to influence their decisions. Before getting to the cabin we see that each one of the characters is a smart, well-adjusted human being. Well, maybe not the pothead. But once they reach the cabin each is exposed to a drug to bring out a certain stereotype the audience associates with the slasher genre. One becomes the alpha male jock, one a whore, one the sweet guy and one a prissy little virgin. Every time they make a decision that isn’t acceptable they are given a drug to get the appropriate response.
But who is administering these drugs? That’s the crowning achievement of the film. We not only get to see the students as they are put through this surreal ordeal, but those who are controlling the situation from afar. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins play two employees of the unnamed corporation who are in charge of making sure these characters do exactly what is required for the ritual to be successful. We also see that this is a global operation and the same thing is taking place in multiple countries. But these people aren’t written as conniving evildoers, but as regular everyday people doing the same job they’re done for years (and bickering about it too). At one point we see that they run an office pool to bet on what horrible cliché the cabin folk will choose to be the instrument of their deaths (all about the merman). These scenes are filled with Whedon’s trademark humor and clever winking to the audience, because basically Whitford and Jenkins are playing film versions of Whedon and Goddard who comment on all the stupid shit they cause in the cabin.

The different scenarios that the cabin folk can unleash upon themselves are another sly little nod to the horror genre. The characters unknowingly choose a redneck zombie family to be their means of slaughter, but we later see that some of the other choices available were Evil Dead rape trees, a giant bat, huge spiders, a Cenobite rip-off called Fornicus, a demonic sugarplum fairy, goblins, robots and… a unicorn. There were about 50 or so they could have chosen and we get to see the majority of them strut their stuff in the epic finale.
Another thing that makes the film work is the fantastic acting on display. Whitford and Jenkins are phenomenally entertaining as the goofy controllers of the ritual, and their co-stars in the office (Brian White and Whedon alums Tom Lenk and Amy Acker) are just as fun, but without the victims we would have no one to associate with. Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, plays Curt the jock and does a damn fine job of it. Even before his character switches to the head guy mentality he oozes a charm that goes to show why he’s become leading man material in such a short space of time. The dude just has it. The same goes for Kristen Connolly as the (sort of) virginal Dana. She is so natural and laid back in her role, yet completely convincing, that you forget you’re watching an actor playing a part. Their co-stars Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams and especially Fran Kranz as the perpetually stoned Marty are all great as well. Franz, of course, gets all the good lines (“Yeah, uh, I had to dismember that guy with a trowel. What have you been up to?”) and is the avatar for the audience due to his cloud of bong smoke allowing him to see what’s really going on around him.

Drew Goddard, who as far as I know has never directed a film before (he’s a writer by trade), shows a confidence that you don’t usually see in someone’s first movie. Everything is balanced perfectly, from the comedy to the horror elements, and he gets his stable of actors to turn in fine performances regardless of how big or small their parts are. He also has a very solid visual style that works wonders for the material. My only advice is for him to tell his cinematographer to light the exterior nighttime scenes a little better since it was hard to make out what was going on a lot of the time. He knows what works, and he had to walk a fine line to keep this story on track so that twists aren’t given away too soon, the cheese is never laid on too thick and that it never takes itself too seriously. If not balanced correctly the whole effect he and Whedon were going for would have come crashing down. Thankfully he pulls it off in grand fashion.
Clever, intelligent and most of all FUN, The Cabin in the Woods is a movie no horror fan, or film fan, should miss. Every aspect of it worked for me on multiple levels and I keep going back to watch it and am surprised each time I find some awesome new detail I had previously missed. Sure it ends up going to a dark place in the end, but I’ve never been this entertained by the end of the world.

I enjoy this flick so much I’ve named it my favorite film of 2012.

5 out of 5

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