Friday, April 27, 2012

Movie Review: "The Cabin in the Woods" by David Pretty

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess up front that I am Joss Whedon's bitch. 

Honestly, it wasn't always that way.  Back in the late 90's my infinitely smarter half tried in vain to get me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Every time I'd glance over and catch a glimpse of Sarah Michelle Gellar wrestling with some guy wearing a facial appliance, I'd turn my nose up and say something snobbish like: "Honestly, why do you insist on watching such puerile nonsense?"

Then I'd turn back to the infinitely more mature pursuit of playing Warcraft.  Not World of Warcraft, mind you, just plain ol' vanilla Warcraft.     

Eventually a co-worker forced me to watch the pilot episode of Buffy à la Alex in Clockwork Orange.  Just as I was about to give up on it, the gloriously bitchy Cordelia Chase (played by the appropriately named Charisma Carpenter) appeared from out of nowhere, took one look at dowdy Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and said "Nice dress, Willow.  It's good to know you've seen the softer side of Sears".

I was working for Sears at the time.  I was also instantly converted.  

Ever since my epiphany I've worshipped without pause at the altar of all things Whedon.  Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Fray, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: I've devoured every one of the man's table scraps ravenously.   

So, needless to say, this review probably won't be the most objective thing that I've ever written.  Nevertheless, I'll do my best not to gush like an overheated fanboy.

Sooooo...the plot.  A detailed synopsis presents the first of many sticky wickets.  How can I lay the groundwork for this review without spoiling the film like a bag of milk left on a radiator for a week?

Okay, well...let's see.  Cabin In The Woods is about a the...woods?  

Sorry, I got nuthin'.  If there are gonna be spoilers, I'd rather they come from an officially sanctioned source like the film's theatrical trailer.  To the blissfully sheltered I say unto thee: tread carefully.

So, basically, five college students venture out to the set of The Evil Dead for a presumptive weekend of partying and casual sex.  Naturally, once they get out there, one of them finds an old diary and reads a creepy passage in Latin out loud.  This seems to rouse some terrible evil from its slumber which then proceeds to stalk and kill the interlopers one by one.  As the story unfolds, however, we begin to suspect that there's more to this age-old pantomime then meets the eye.

To reveal any more of the plot would go against the Geneva Convention's tenants concerning spoiler douchebaggery.  Honestly, the less you know about the film going into it the better.  In fact, if you're currently in possession of some sort of time-displacement device I'd heartily recommend that you go back to the point just before you watched that trailer.   

Yeah, sorry 'bout that BTW.   

Some critics believe that the film's marketing campaign reveals too much of the mystery.  I concede this point somewhat, but I also suspect that if the producers hadn't shown at least some of their hand, they'd probably have organ donors like this slack-jawed troglodyte threatening to sue them for false advertising.  

If Whedon and company had gone with a promotional campaign that only painted the film as your run-of-the-mill slasher flick, it might have been disastrous.  Discriminating movie-goers would have written the movie off as hopelessly derivative and morons who actually like hopelessly derivative would have suffered an allergic reaction to all of that pesky and confusing originality on display.

If I thought that most people out there weren't supremely stupid I certainly would have preferred a more subtle trailer that mainly showcased the murderdeathkill cabin-based hi jinx with a couple of minor tells thrown in that might only became obvious upon repeat viewings.  Hell, I think that a single glance at the fucking poster is enough to convey that something is askew here.  But unfortunately, most people have the IQ of a piece of furniture, such as the two mouth-breathers sitting behind me in the theatre who had to talk themselves through the movie as if they were coming down from a bad acid trip.

As if the trailer isn't revealing enough, the film actually kicks off with an incongruously banal conversation between two bored office workers (played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  Still nattering on about the challenges of child-proofing a kitchen, they emerge from their innocuous-looking break room into what appears to be a top-secret research facility.  After they're joined by a clip-board armed Amy Acker in full-on sexy scientist mode, we know that our expectations for a straight-up slasher film are going to be seriously fucked with.

This is made comically apparent when the previous scene jarringly throws to a Grindhouse-style title card and an animated credit sequence rife with dripping blood and ominous imagery.  The transition is done without any warning whatsoever and had me giggling like a kid on Christmas morning.

Screenwriting tag-team Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon then proceed to tear apart genre conventions like toddlers attacking a wall of Lego.  The "jock" gives academic advice, the "bimbo" is pre-med, the "virgin" may or may not adhere to the traditional definition of chaste and the "stoner" proves to be the most insightful character in the film.

All of this serves to sustain the viewer as Goddard and Whedon gamely trot out an entire cavalcade of scary movie clichés.  The characters encounter a creepy old gas station attendant who serves up dire warnings like a backwoods Greek chorus.  Their final destination "isn't worthy of global positioning".  The cabin itself looks Club Med for Deadites.

Almost immediately, dark machinations begin to nudge the characters towards archetypal behavior.  Curt (Chris Hemsworth) morphs into a meat-headed alpha male and Jules (Anna Hutchison) breaks the knob off the Slut-O-Meter by making out with a stuffed wolf's head (?).  Even when things start to go south, Curt's initial impulse to stick together is nullified by some intangible force.

Curt: This isn't right.
Holden: What? What's the matter?
Curt: This isn't right, we should split up. We can cover more ground that way.
Holden: Yeah. Yeah, good idea.
Marty: Really!?! 

The film then cuts back and forth between the drama going on at the cabin and the machinations happening behind the scenes.  Eventually the resilient survivors (as well as the gobsmacked audience) piece together what's going on just moments before all hell breaks loose.  Literally.     

Long-time Whedon collaborator Drew Goddard does a fantastic job in his feature-length directorial debut.  His set-ups feature dynamic motion, giving the film tremendous verve.  Many of his shots are framed in smothering levels of darkness, producing a genuine feeling of impending doom.  He also exploits the depth of frame, gleefully dropping things half-glimpsed into the background.  I particularly liked his juxtaposition between the ghoulish office party and Dana's life or death struggle being played out in the background like an ESPN highlight reel. 

And this is perhaps the film's greatest achievement.  Whereas a movie like From Dusk Til Dawn unsuccessfully tried to boilerplate horror and crime dramas together, Cabin's bait-and-switch ending actually works.  After the script trots out all of the threadbare old tropes the gleefully insane detour provided by the final reel is downright cathartic.  And even though the film pulls the equivalent of a tonal half-loop, it still manages to be more thrilling then disjointed.

In the past Whedon's more flippant, cheeky or self-referential lines have needlessly taken the piss out of dramatic moments, but for the most part the dialogue here is just plain clever.  I love it when Hadley re-assures Lin that "We know what we're doing. We have it written down somewhere" and when Marty, the film's unlikely source of wisdom, opines: "Society needs to crumble. We're all just too chicken shit to let it".  All of the character's voices are clarion, unique, and well-tailored.

Although some of the actors seem a bit long in the tooth to play college kids, this also feels strangely traditional.  Kristen Connelly's Dana is like a combination of Felicia Day and Amy Steel from Friday the 13'th Part 2.  Wilting and retiring at first, Kristen is able to display a convincing will of instinct after shit starts to get (un)real.  She even manages to capably sell Dana's turn towards pragmatic ruthlessness in the final act.

Some of the actors are essentially required to perform dual roles.  Initially self-assured, charismatic and noble, a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth has to switch gears at the mid-way point and play Curt as an addle-brained, nerd-baiting, walking gonad.  Then, after her new hair color kicks in (you'll understand when you see it), previous Power Ranger Anna Hutchison's disposition as Jules goes from effervescent and sunny to the equivalent of a cat in heat.  Despite this jarring turn, her performance is self-assured and effectively wanton.

Like the love child of Owen Wilson and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, Fran Kranz practically steals every scene as the perpetually-baked Marty.  Whereas cinematic proponents of the chronic traditionally get their mellow harshed by premature death, Marty is fortified somewhat by his habit.  I love how the script actively rewards his open mind and creeping paranoia.  Through it all, Kranz brings Marty to vivid life with deft touches of humor, amusing vocal quirks and stoop-shouldered slacker charm.

Speaking of scene-stealers, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are respectively fantastic as put-upon administrative drones Gary and Steve.  I know that I'm supposed to regard them as villainous, but between the smart script and their wonderfully nuanced performances these guys become nearly as compelling and complicated as the leads.  With their Umbrella-Corporation-by-way-of-Dilbert approach to the job, you start to forget about whether or not the ends justify the means and begin to feel sorry for the poor shlubs.

Of the main cast, only Jesse Williams as Holden seems to be a non-entity.  Tim de Zarn, on the other hand is authentically grizzled and memorably loopy as the conference-call-phobic Mordecai.   Die hard fans of the Whendonverse will also enjoy seeing the persistently charming Amy Acker as Wendy Lin and Tom Lenk as the tightly-wound intern Ronald.

When the lid of Pandora's box finally gets blown off of its hinges, the quality of the resulting CGI definitely betrays the film's modest means.  But when you stop to consider just how much Goddard and Whedon managed to accomplish with a paltry $12 million dollars, I can't help but convert this jeer to a cheer.  Yes, some of the digital effects look a tad cartoony, but all of the gloriously practical costumes, makeup, creature suits and prosthetics make Cabin in the Woods a genuine love letter to classic horror fromage.

The only thing I can't shake quite so easily is the distinct impression that huge chunks of the film's lore  make absolutely no sense and Whedon's just trying to pull a fast one on us.  I can't get specific without ruining the movie's trade secrets, but after you finish watching Cabin in the Woods, I'd challenge you to pause for a moment and reconcile everything that you've just seen.  Frankly, I still have no idea why the artifice itself had to be so ridiculously elaborate.

Even in fantasy films there has to be a certain internal logic otherwise everything starts to feel inconsequential.  Although Cabin's central conspiracy has a certain don't ask/don't tell quality, it's pretty high testimony that the illusion stays intact even after everything flies off the rails.  Despite how exponentially insane the rapid-fire action and revelations become, Whedon and Goddard are always there to hold up a flash card with the word "MYTHOS" written on it and regain our buy-in.  Indeed, pulpy, Lovecraftian tentacles run very deep here.  

Despite the muddy waters of the premise, Cabin in the Words shouldn't be mistaken for just another  vapid horror movie with a loopy twist.  For one, the film is viciously critical of those among us who manipulate our seemingly disposable youth into shedding their own blood to maintain the status quo.  Just take a look at our resource-fueled modern wars and the median age of those who perish in them and you'll begin to see Cabin's supposedly low-brow parable in a completely different light.

In doing so, Whedon and Goddard redefine the sometimes inexplicable horror movie passion play as more then just a string of tired old cliches.  It's actually a ritual.

And frankly I can't think of a more profound statement to attribute to such an unfairly maligned genre.

 Tilt: up.

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