Thursday, April 26, 2012

In Theaters: The Cabin in the Woods

Poster via Internet Movie Poster Awards

Despite sitting on the shelf for a couple of years, The Cabin in the Woods feels pretty fresh. A lot has been written about how there's more to the plot than even the seemingly revealing trailers let on, and it's definitely a challenge to write about this without giving something away. Suffice it to say, Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon's film is an imaginative take on horror movie tropes that goes beyond simply referencing them, to questioning the need for their existence. If it isn't quite as surprising as it tries to be, it still manages to create some genuinely transgressive thrills.

Here's what I can reveal. Five college kids go out to a cabin in the woods for vaguely defined reasons, there to drink, screw, etc. What they don't know is that by doing so, they're becoming part of a kind of project, watched over from miles below the Earth by a couple of technicians (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) who are subtly manipulating their behavior through pheromones and other tricks. When the gang stumble upon the cabin cellar and unleash something horrible, it's all according to a very old plan. Only the stoner of the group (Fran Kranz) suspects that they're being manipulated, but he's a little too baked to do any good, so it's mostly the young and sweet Dana (Kristen Connolly) who has to find a way to fight the forces who want them dead- if she ever figures out what they're really up to.

One of the good things about this exercise in genre reflexiveness is that the cabin scenario itself, which ends up involving a family of zombie pain cultists (one of whom is Tideland's Jodelle Ferdland), seems like a decent horror film, with some spooky backstory and a few good shocks- it'd be an acceptable time waster, and the lead of the Buckners does carry a bear trap on a chain that he throws to ensnare people, which is pretty intense. Of course it's still a bit cliched, since that's the entire point.

It's not hard to see the metafictional elements in this story. It has a lot to do with the formulas that bedevil American horror films, and how religiously they're followed, like rituals where something will go horribly wrong if they don't kill all the characters who have sex and do drugs. I've never understood this, and it's ruined a few horror flicks for me as of late. (I'm looking at you, Piranha 3D.) In broad terms, Cabin suggests this is unsustainable- that the old ways don't work anymore, that we're too clever and self-aware for them to fulfill their function. The film does leave some room for ambiguity in interpreting what it's about, and while it's a critique of the genre it doesn't hold itself above the audience who enjoy such things.

The drawback of being a spoof on the traditional horror formula is that the movie still has to follow it for the first two-thirds before it really goes nuts, and our awareness that things aren't what they seem doesn't always help. Some plot points I saw coming, but at others the foreknowledge is engaging- it's a mixed bag. Still, the film's final third is a glorious chaotic storm, an act of sheer creative anarchy that elevates the whole thing. It helps that the script is witty (though your tolerance for Whedonspeak may vary) and the acting spot on, with an inspired cameo near the end.

Horror is always changing, but it's always bedeviled by people who stick to the status quo because it's easy money- on top of which there's a guilty fun in rehashing old clich├ęs. While there are definitely horror films being made that don't follow the Dead Teenager identikit model, it's nice to have one that actively demolishes the confines. The Cabin in the Woods is an engaging movie in its own right, but what it says about the horror genre leaves us with a lot to chew on.

Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard
Grade: A-

No comments: