Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cabin Fever: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Note: I did my best to discuss this movie without major spoilers, but if you’re avoiding even hints of twists, you best go see the movie first. It’s pretty good.

The Cabin in the Woods starts like any horror movie of its ilk. A group of frisky young people head off to a remote location for a raucous vacation. This time around, as so many other times around, the group consists of people who can be broken down into all the usual types: a good girl (Kristen Connolly), a bad girl (Anna Hutchison), a jock (Chris Hemsworth), an egghead (Jesse Williams), and a stoner (Fran Kranz). On their way to the jock’s cousin’s summer cabin, they stop at a dilapidated gas station where the grizzled creep owner (Tim De Zarn) spits out chunks of tobacco and warns them away. Getting to the cabin is easy, he says. “Getting back will be your business,” he growls.

Of course they go anyway, because that’s the kind of movie this is. But before you can say, “Stop. I’ve heard this before,” screenwriters Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly) and Drew Goddard (of Cloverfield) have something cleverer up their sleeves. In a pre-title scene we’ve met two middle-age white guys (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford), each in shirt and tie, chatting all the way down a long, white and grey corridor, waving I.D. badges and getting in a couple of jibes at the expense of a coworker (Amy Acker). This seemingly unconnected scene is ultimately integral to what we’re about to see. This is no young-people-stalked-in the-woods movie like The Evil Dead or Friday the 13th or, or, or. There are definitely elements of that here, but Whedon and Goddard pull back and show us the strings. These guys have the cabin under close watch with a sharp eye for the expected.

You think you know where this is going. The characters are certainly familiar and won’t be explored for depth of characterization. You may even think I’ve spoiled things by revealing that the seemingly average bureaucrats have something to do with what’s about to go down in the cabin in the woods. But this movie’s better than that. It’s a work of supremely slippery genre craftsmanship with more twists than you’d think, that plays on what you think you know in order to double down on the unsettling dread that begins to sink in. When you go to a horror movie, you know things are going to go badly for the characters. When these young, vibrant people head down into the cabin’s mysterious basement and examine the creepy artifacts, yellowed photographs, and ominous incantations, you just know that soon it’ll be more than leaves rustling out there in the dark.

Because we know that there are others watching, we know that the characters are headed into a trap. This takes away some (but not all) of the scares from things going bump in the night, but it also proposes provocative questions of genre introspection. Why are horror movies capable of scares even when characters are driving headfirst (even knowingly) into predictable formula? And why is puncturing the illusion of these characters’ free will so destabilizing? You know going into a slasher movie that a masked killer’s going to hunt down some victims and the results will be bloody. Why, then, are these films still capable of great effectiveness and suspense? It’s all about the execution. When one of the bureaucrats says, “We’re not the only ones watching,” it’s clear that the movie is implicating us, questioning why we want to see what we’re about to see.

Goddard directs the script with confident genre expertise, staging jump scares with great playfulness. As the movie goes on, he and Whedon find ever more rugs to pull, ratcheting up the tension and dread. It’s all that I can do to restrain myself from writing in extensive, spoiler-filled detail about just how ingenious a genre deconstruction this film becomes. At one point, the chaos in the cabin – the running, the screaming, the hiding, the splitting up, the disappearing, the bloody implements of death – appears to be winding down to a grimly satisfying genre endpoint, the exact point that a lesser, even a slightly lesser, horror film would conclude with the feeling of a job well done. Indeed, I was prepared for the final freak out and the smash into the end credits. If they had arrived just then, I would have still found The Cabin in the Woods to be a reasonably clever genre exercise. But just as it’s coasting to a close, Whedon and Goddard tighten the screws and ratchet up the intensity one more time. The movie grows stranger, funnier, and bloodier, dissecting an impressive number of horror styles in a descent into the fiery pits of unsettling territory. The final twenty minutes or so are some kind of inspired genius.

However hugely entertaining, the movie is only about the essential nature of horror movies. The characters remain thin and, despite the cascade of topsy-turvy, surprising yet inevitable plot adjustments and a couple of killer cameos, it’s not exactly a movie of any deep humanity. (If it was, and just a little icier or more confrontational too, I’d call it popcorn Michael Haneke.) What Whedon and Goddard stage is an intense, oftentimes hilarious, slashing of expectations, a veritable thesis on the nature of point of view and audience identification in horror cinema. The final moments of the film have us asking anew whom to root for and questioning which outcome is actually the best outcome. It sets up the clichés so skillfully that, as the world of the film is so thoroughly ripped apart, subversion itself is ultimately the biggest source of both knowing winks and destabilizing fright.

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