Monday, April 16, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – Review

Review: The Cabin in the Woods is a very fun mix of homage, satire, classic America horror, and something completely different and new. I generally try to keep my reviews spoiler free, but this film is extremely hard to talk about without revealing elements that may take away from its first viewing, and so I greatly suggest you stop reading here if you have yet to see it. Just know: if you like horror films and/or Joss Whedon’s style, you should go see this film. Spoilers: The film is about five friends who go up to a remote cabin in the woods to get away for the weekend only to find themselves pawns in a horrific ritual. Writer-director Drew Goddard and co-writer and producer Joss Whedon are both huge fans of the horror genre, and this film is their love/hate letter to the genre. It is packed full of homages to films like The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Suspiria, and many more (there is even some very funny J-Horror stuff in there). On its surface premise, the film stereotypically plays on the tried-and-true genre clichés and genre archetypal characters as they go up to a secluded cabin only to be tormented and killed by all manner of monsters (the basic premise of hundreds of horror films), but Goddard and Whedon want to have fun with these clichés and viewer/genre expectations. The film becomes a very funny post-modern deconstruction of the genre, pointing out and drawing attention to each cliché and narrative device, but also reveling in them. However, as a result, the film works much better as a comedy than as a scary movie, as it is not very scary – though does have some decent thrilling moments. It does not skimp on gore however, with a bloody bedlam of a third act. What works extraordinarily well in the film is that the satire and straight horror cues flow together and do not really detract from each other, as each resonates from their own piece of the narrative, which is seen from two different perspectives and set of characters, intersecting in the third act. If taken as a straight horror film (eliminating the other perspective and narrative track), the film is a decent entry in the genre – latent with clichés and things horror fans have seen a million times (which is sort of the point; it is called The Cabin in the Woods after all) – but still enjoyable because Goddard and Whedon create rich characters (a Whedon specialty) that the audience cares about (especially Dana and Marty), even as they assume their stereotyped genre roles. However, it is the completely crazy and imaginative other narrative and set of characters that make this film great, highly innovative and fun. Sitterson and Hadley (the two office employees) are so mundane when the audience meets them. And yet, they are ultimately the most interesting characters in the film, serving as the writers’ perspective on the horror genre in a sense, commenting on what is happening to these kids (as monsters try to kill them) to comedic affect while they guide their fates by inserting story devices (much like writers and directors do). They invite the audience in on the joke and process. The film, then, plays in a way as a criticism of the horror genre, referencing tons of films and genre narrative tools – subverting them to a degree. Can anyone make a ‘cabin in the woods’ type horror film again after this? And yet, even as the film is constantly commenting on genre clichés, characters, situations, narrative structures, and so on, it turns into a horror film as the two narratives combine and everyone is being chased by monsters and there is an ultimate big bad. The film is not perfect however. It is full of very ambitious ideas that the audience needs to just accept without too much reflection, as there is so much untold and stipulated about the world of the film that it seems that the universe itself is full of things that are not fully explained or understood – the audience does not know the rules of this world (because they are constantly being broken and changed). But, narratively speaking, it does not matter at all. This is just a crazy adventure to go on and have fun with. The Cabin in the Woods warrants almost endless viewing for huge genre fans, as easter eggs are overly abundant. For non-hardcore genre fans, it is a wonderful comedy with great characters and thrilling moments (and I brilliant and crazy third act).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Drew Goddard is known to many of us as a fantastic writer of television (writing some of great episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s seventh season and Lost). His first feature script was Cloverfield. With The Cabin in the Woods, he makes his directorial debut to great effect. The film oozes with great style and flare, and he meticulously and perfectly captures what the film sets out to be, keeping it fresh and most importantly a lot of fun. I, for one, very much look forward to seeing what he does next. Composer David Julyan’s score establishes the tone for the film, that being one of a classic ‘cabin in the woods’ style horror film, and it does this masterfully. While I would not say that it stands out as much as say his score for The Prestige, it is a very good and chilling piece of work in a genre that often has great music. Cinematographer Peter Deming got his start shooting low budget horror films, and appropriately his first feature job was on Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (a film and series that certainly influenced this one visually and thematically). Visually speaking, the look of this film fully captures the elements of homage with shots that closely (if not exactly) resemble many in classic horror films, while also match the feel of the genre. Production designer Martin Whist’s work is essential to the success of the film in many ways. He needed to articulate visually the look of classic ‘cabin in the woods’ films, while also creating a fun contrast between the cabin and the more banal office/lab space. He does a great job. His cabin set is so intricate and specific, that genre fans will enjoy it (especially the basement). In terms of the performances: Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison and Jesse Williams are good in support playing archetypal genre characters (the jock, slut and brain), but it is the fool and virgin that shine among the five (which is due to them being main characters and given more to do). Fran Kranz is very funny and has wonderful comedic timing (stealing most of his scenes; this performance along with his work in Dollhouse certainly makes him a talent to watch), while Kristen Connolly embodies (for most of us) the audience’s emotional connection to the narrative. She is sweet and likable, but has enough spunk and grit to fight. In the other group of characters (down in the office/lab), Amy Acker is great playing the conscious of Sitterson and Hadley, while also having fun with them. However, it is Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (as Sitterson and Hadley) that own the film. They are fantastic – playing their characters as seemingly boring workday nobodies with normal lives, who just trudge along in their menial jobs, only the fate of the world rests in their hands. They are both funny and emotionally engaging. End of Spoilers.

Summary & score: The Cabin in the Woods is very funny, inventive and crazy (and probably one of the most fun film experiences you will have in 2012), but it also probably destroys the ‘cabin in the woods’ sub-genre (or maybe even the whole genre) to all future filmmakers (or the next 5-10 years, or less given how quickly things are revamped, remade and rebooted these days). 8/10

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