Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cabin in the Woods: Bumps In the Night

Cabin in the Woods
Directed By: Drew Goddard
Written By: Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Starring: Fran Kranz, Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, and Amy Acker
Director of Photography: Peter Deming, Editor: Lisa Lassek, Production Designer: Martin Whist, Original Music: David Julyan
I’m going to spoil everything in this movie. Most of it, which people have made a big deal about, really shouldn’t be considered “spoilers.” I read a couple of the reviews that called this film a mind-blowing masterpiece, and then refused to tell you anything about it, which kind of seems like a pointless act of film criticism. Apparently, many of the critics who don’t like this film have spoiled it (and of course these are the critics who are “wrong,” though people like Rex Reed aren’t exactly helping). I find this all quite amusing, because this is what separates film reviews from film criticism. I try and do both (albeit very poorly), because I have the feeling many of the people who read this stuff anyways are those who have seen the films already. Anyways, on with the show.

            The title of Cabin in the Woods is the first sign that the latest work from the universe of all things fanboy Joss Whedon is very aware of the story it’s telling. Five teenagers—the jock, the sex bomb, the nerd, the stoner, and the virgin—head up to, well, a cabin in the middle of nowhere, with a plan of enjoying all that comes without parental or societal supervision. Of course, the forest is a place where transgression leads to death by way of the supernatural, and in this one it is “Redneck Pain-Worshiping Zombies” (“if only it could be Merman, just once” a character explains—more on that later). Needless to say, Whedon, along with director and co-writer Drew Goddard, have set out to make a deconstruction of the horror genre, not too far from the Scream franchise.

            Ah yes, the latest movie about movies! Deconstruction is essentially a genre on itself these days, and it seems you can’t make a normal movie without someone believing it is actually about the making of cinema (see: Inception, a lot of film noir, all musicals, etc.). But Cabin in the Woods is specifically about the way we watch and enjoy horror cinema. Its premise—not only about these kids, but also those who control their destiny—is certainly clever, and at times quite ingenious. But Whedon and Goddard perhaps try and stretch their metaphor, a bit too much, trying to cram as much universe building and extra explanations as possible. Cabin is a ton of fun when it’s playing with the horror clichés we know, but it’s also a nightmare when it tries to explain those.

            It’s not surprising that Whedon and Goddard feel like pulling us through an elaborate rabbit role. Whedon of course created one of the most iconic series of all time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (not to mention Firefly and the unfairly maligned Dollhouse), and Goddard comes from the JJ Abrams universe, most notably as a writer for Lost and Cloverfield (as well as Buffy). Both have made their career by exploring and playing with our ideas of genre, and especially horror and sci-fi clichés, so Cabin embraces them with open arms, while commenting on them at the same time.

            It may seem odd that in a film called Cabin in the Woods begins in what looks like a nuclear silo, where scientists Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford discuss their plans for the next week, while prepping something sinister. It becomes quite obvious that whatever they are doing down there has something to do with these sexually ferocious kids and their weekend plans.  It’s this first part of Cabin that’s so deliciously fun, with its self-aware humor of what we’ve come to expect from movies like this. Whedon and Goddard know their story so well, and aren’t afraid to wink and wink hard at their audience (one of the best jokes happens when the jock and sex kitten go off to the woods for some R rated content and the scientists behind their experiment all crowd around the screens waiting for the big reveal). The five clichés—Kristen Connolly (virgin), Chris Hemsworth (jock, also Thor), Anna Hutchison (sexpot), Jesse Williams (nerd), and Fran Kranz (fulzy, also Whedon regular)—play their parts well and with conviction, and their characters are underwritten, but purposely so. And Goddard knows the visual language, going with the shots we have come to expect and playing them like a Guitar Hero solo note for note. So when big Hemsworth rides right into a wall of electronic doom, it’s hard not to laugh at how serious the actor preps the sequence, making the payoff all the more enjoyable.

            Cabin in the Woods has a general playfulness that is fun, even if its all metaphor (the directors control the action, though the actors must still make choices, and as long as they are all sacrificed, the unseen gods (ie. THE AUDIENCE) will not be enraged). And when it plays it slight, it says some unique things about the “final girl” and the importance of what the monsters are. But for some reason Whedon and Goddard begin to take their story literally instead. After what seemed like a pitch perfect ending moment as the crew celebrates their job well done while the our protagonist is brutally beaten by a zombie, the film then sends us behind the curtain to reveal all the details of how this is all part of an ancient ritual, only more high tech. Not only is this a stretch of the metaphor and takes it in a whole different bizarre and odd direction, but Whedon and Goddard keep piling on more and more exposition and more lore to the legend.

We don’t need to learn more—by this time we should be rooting for the characters, who only seem to stick around so we can “learn” more. The problem is that none of this is too interesting, and then Sigourney Weaver shows up in an odd cameo to explain even more. Weaver’s cameo is bizarre, not only because she showed up as “the director” in Paul (which was shot later than Cabin, but released last year), but also it seems like someone like Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) or Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead) would have been more appropriate, given their status in the horror genre as opposed to the science fiction genre.

Certainly expectations may have played into my dissatisfaction with Cabin in the Woods (thanks to Twitter, not to mention the Whedonites who felt the need to laugh extra hard at every single line), but I still feel I could have been a bit dissatisfied with the last thirty minutes, which do give some inventive visual gags (my favorite being the runaway chainsaw robot), but made me forget what movie I was supposed to be watching. Deconstruction is a tricky genre, and some of the best (The Long Goodbye, Unforgiven) are content on simply telling their stories without ever having to wink at their meta side. The problem is since Scream and even to a lesser extent, 30 Rock, self-awareness has become the only way to do a deconstruction. But Cabin in the Woods wants to tell its own story too, and it’s a shame that it stuffs that story into its last third quite sloppily. It’s a fun distraction, but a distraction nonetheless.

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