Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods is a post-modern meta-horror-comedy KNOCKOUT

Oh, and


You're still here? 

Ok good, let's move on to the review.

It takes a certain mind (or I should say minds) to really get right making not just a "meta" or post-modern take on a genre, or genres, but an entertaining film that creates its own world, has a semi-realistic world for itself, and characters that can work in that world while still being apart of the genre(s).  Tarantino has made it his stock and trade mission as an artist (think Kill Bill being a jambalaya of action-thriller genres from across the world, but still has characters and a world that is of itself).  And Joss Whedon has done it as well, in his own way, for years in television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse), and now he moves on to motion pictures.  He and his co-writer/director Drew Goddard take on the horror genre, and boy oh boy oh boy....  

(first, geeky response):


More measured response:

Whedon and Goddard take one of the base kind of horror movie ideas: a group of teenagers who are archetypes go to a cabin in the woods to have a party for the weekend and get attacked by supernatural forces, being picked off one by one until the "virgin" is left last alive.  This premise is then taken into something of a science fiction set-up (think, if you must, The Truman Show or the more recent The Hunger Games), where a group of workers in a control room (played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, with Amy Acker for back-up) are pulling the strings for everything that goes on - they 'pick' the five, they track them completely, and the cabin (which, by the way, IS the cabin from Evil Dead 2) is locked off from the rest of the world with a force-field where nothing can enter or escape except through a tunnel.  There's cameras, pheremones, and of course the "Creature(s)" that they call up to attack.  In this case it's Zombie Redneck Family.  (and, of course, Whitford wanted the Merman, to which Jenkins wisely responds "You don't want to see that.")

So already, the stakes are incredibly raised into something clever and wise into the realm of horror movie commentary.  And it goes a much fuller, extra, braver step than the Scream movies (especially the last one, SCRE4M) - where Craven and Williamson took the first step that characters in a horror movie had at least *seen* other horror movies (but it was still a basic slasher movie unto itself), Whedon and Goddard go, 'Look, yes, this is a horror movie, but it's also a comedy because we can go even further with the jokes, BUT, it's also its own world where there are rules within a much bigger, darker supernatural framework'.  If you've seen Buffy or Angel this will be quite familiar terrain, where it's 'horror' tropes but with characters and a sort of universe where there are much bigger stakes than just the usual stuff.  Part of that is making believable, likable characters who can function as their archetypes, BUT have so much more room for three-dimensions.  That's a big part of what makes Cabin in the Woods unique.

I'm not Thor yet, but I wear a jacket pretty well.
There's the artistic ambition, but then, as with Tarantino's work, a key factor: is it entertaining?  First, the direction is knowing of how horror films work, what makes them click for an audience, and what can actually be scary of what is coming at you, and what is terrifying.  It helps to have characters that are not, say, douchebags like in every other horror film.  This time because Whedon and company say 'Well, why do they have to be douchebags from the start?  Let's make that part of the 'mythology' of the thing."  So because of this, it's even further funny and engaging to see what happens to them as the 'Company' that's controlling everything keeps the wheels turning and how we view the tropes keeps changing.  And the other thing is just... good comedic timing and dialog, and having the actors being able to play off each other with that timing.  In that sense Whitford and Jenkins nearly steal the show (along with the "stoner" part of the cast of young people) with their clever jabs and as well the little moments that make the characters grounded and recognize how serious the world actually is.  It's self-knowing but not in the 'I'm smarter than you' way that other movies mistake.

From the start of the story, the very opening scene in fact, the film makes itself known as being in this world of the 'Company' that controls everything.  To start with the conspiracy is ballsy for most filmmakers; for Whedon, it's just another day at the office (indeed this goes even a step further for him as he started his show Dollhouse from the main character's perspective and then went into the 'company' that controls the dolls - inspired by it much? Likely so).  But what is doubly satisfying is the subtlety that comes up, and the questions, whatever they may be, that are raised, during the first two thirds of the film as to what else there is to this company.  Apparently, they control all sorts of fun-house horrors all across the globe to appease "something" that is downstairs... or is it upstairs?  (One of my very favorite parts of the film, though small, is the footage on one of the monitors in the control room where the scene from any given Japanese ghost-horror flick is up, and it gets twisted to a fine point - to say much more would be going past spoiler-ville into dick-town).

The West Wing... with demons.
 These little clues and hints as to what the hell is going on in this bizarro world of horror-movie machinations - or, rather, a clever sort of meta-commentary in and of itself on the creators of horror movie conventions as the "directors" and "producers" and "crew" of it all in the control room - keep getting dropped in so well that by the time the BIG-HOLY-FUCK turn of events comes in the third act, it can only go one way but to explode on the screen.  This, too, I think back to Kill Bill, particularly volume 1 where the House of Blue Leaves explodes into a anarchic opera of mayhem and violence.  To get stupid-hipster-rock-music comparison-y, one may be a beautiful, hard-edged classic rock solo; this, however, is like a serious of furious, hilarious, holy-God-is-that-what-I-think-it-is punk songs strung together, like a Ramones concert that doesn't let you go.  It's not just about the conventions of a cabin in the woods where the archetypes are set up by their tropes, manipulated further, and then knocked down and made to "suffer" for being the archetypes they are.  It becomes about ALL of horror movie monsters, some we've forgotten, some we think are too ridiculous, some so out of left-field that you have to laugh out of sheer surprise...

And yet it's still suspenseful and shot with a heavy modicum of style and grace; Goddard knows where to put the camera, and the atmosphere that's created, like so much of the rest of the film, is original while (or because?) it's being derivative.  And the performances all work too, with one or two moments with some of the 'fresh meat' that falls flat (I couldn't tell you now which ones, it would be nitpicking).  And there's a helluva good cameo too that will please horror/sci-fi fans around the world.  And it all comes back to this being - goddamnit, I'm gonna use these words, sorry people - the penultimate, quintessential horror comedy of the past who-knows-how-many years, possibly ever.  It's filmmaking and craft that is as smart as its audience, or hopes they are (as opposed to being *smarter*, which is a difference in attitude and approach and everything in the script), and it takes the sorts of weird chances that confident artists can pull off. And not just that, for Whedon fans, it encapsulates his career as well (think the Hellmouth, or the law office in Angel, or the main office in Dollhouse - all put together like THE statement on what control means for an artist with his creations).  

Final geeky moment:


PS: The Harbinger saying "... Am I on SPEAKER-PHONE?" made me lose it in the theater, in the best possible way.  

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