Friday, October 12, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

I was interested in The Cabin in the Woods from the moment I saw the poster at the movie theater.  I've always wanted to see a Joss Whedon horror movie, and his co-writer/producer credit here is as close as he's gotten to a classic horror film (unless you count Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I don't).  After a strong recommendation from Judas Pato, I had planned to catch it in theaters, but life got in the way and I waited until it was on Blu Ray.  The only reason I was simply "interested" in this movie and not "pee-my-pants excited" was because co-writer/director Drew Goddard had never actually directed anything before.  Like, at all.  On the one hand, it's not like you have to be a veteran director to make a good horror movie, but a little experience never hurts, right?

Cabin in the Woods starts out the way you might think it should.  A group of college coeds are heading off to a remote cabin to enjoy a weekend of drugs, alcohol and sex.  There is the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slutty vixen (Anna Hutchinson), the stoner (Marty, played by Fran Kranz), the smart guy (Jesse Williams), and the virgin, Dana (Kristen Connolly).
You know, your average group of twentysomethings that are actually probably thirtysomething
Only...none of them actually fit those cookie-cutter molds.  Except Marty, because he is high as a muthafucka, or (as I like to call it) "awful roommate high."  These kids start out as well-rounded characters, but something just seems to change when they get out of their RV and spend some time in the cabin.  Granted, it's a creepy old cabin.  It's a little scary from the outside, but it has all sorts of mounted animal heads on the wall, and this picture in one of the bedrooms:
This is what you hang in the bathroom to subtly discourage guests
Things get even stranger after the group pokes around in the basement.  There, they find a number of curious objects, including a diary.  When Dana reads an inscription from the diary aloud, it awakens a family of hillbilly zombies from the grave.  Will these innocent coeds be able to fight off this undead terror?  Actually, surprisingly, that's not a big issue.  The better question is why are office workers monitoring everything going on in and around the cabin?  And what kind of a monster is Kevin?
"I'd rank him above the angry molesting tree, but beneath the dismemberment goblins"

In case the whole office-drones thing didn't clue you in, The Cabin in the Woods is not your typical horror movie.  It is, however, extremely aware of typical horror movies.  Specifically, horror movie tropes.  I'll get more into that in a bit, but it should be pointed out to the curious that this is a love letter to the horror movie genre.
If this image doesn't whet your appetite, you may want to try Saw XIII

The acting in The Cabin in the Woods is pretty solid.  The hottest actor in this cast is probably Chris Hemsworth, and it was nice to see him play an everyday sort of guy.  It was odd that his character never seemed to let go of his football (Remember, he's the jock!), but Hemsworth played his part well and showed that he can deliver witty dialogue.  He wasn't the main character, though.  That responsibility falls on Kristen Connolly, who was simply likable.  She didn't really stand out to me, but I never disliked her character and I thought the part was played well.  The standout in the cast was Fran Kranz, and he turned in one of the best stoner performances in cinema history.  He looks and talks kinda like Shaggy, but he had the best lines and delivery in the entire film.
"Like, zoinks!"
Speaking of actors who know a good line when they read it, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford brought the B-plot to life.  It should be no surprise that these guys work well with witty dialogue, but it never hurts to say it out loud.  One of the nice things about this cast, though, is that they all had the benefit of a pretty clever script, which made otherwise dull roles a bit more fun to watch.  Amy Acker definitely benefited from that, as did Anna Hutchinson and Jesse Williams.  And, hey, Sigourney Weaver had a solid cameo, too.  Really, it didn't matter how many dumb things they were required to do as part of the script; they all knew what to do with the lines they were given.
Although not having Hutchinson sing "Oh, Wolfie" was a missed opportunity

I gave the script a lot of credit for how enjoyable the actors were in The Cabin in the Woods, and I don't think that can be overstated.  I am a big fan of Joss Whedon's quip- and pop-culture-heavy dialogue, and Drew Goddard has a history of working on Whedon's TV shows; when you factor that into my love of horror movies, it's pretty obvious that I am the target audience for The Cabin in the Woods.
I would rent the hell out of that cabin
It's not just the dialogue, though.  There are a ton of references and homages to horror movie cliches, and they're all funny --- the "let's stay together/let's split up" bit was priceless.  And those weren't even the funniest parts!  I almost fell off the couch when the Japanese subplot was resolved with a happy frog.  And the list of names on the betting board...!  There are so many instances of pure gold in this movie that I wanted to do an old-timey prospector jig!
Even better than those little tributes was the way that the script justified the actions of your typical dumb horror movie.  That.  Was.  Brilliant.  There was one notable omission, but I'll touch on that shortly...

Okay, so I liked the acting and writing of The Cabin in the Woods.  How about Drew Goddard's direction?  He did almost everything right.  The production values were excellent.  This movie felt like the same amount of attention went into a detail that was on-screen for a split-second as went into the main characters.
Meet Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain, and star of maybe 3 seconds of this film
The action in this movie looked good, the editing was spot-on in terms of maximizing comedic potential.  The cinematography was...well, it was fairly standard, but I won't hold that against him.  The important thing is that he was able to tell a story, a surprisingly complicated story, in a way that made sense.  I'm sure that the story falls apart a little if you watch with a more critical eye, but there was more than enough polish for me to not notice.  My main gripe with Goddard's direction is that there were no scares in this homage to horror movies.
Cool monsters, yes.  Scares, no.

It felt like the entire focus was on being clever --- which was done quite well, admittedly --- which left the true scares no room to grow.  Even when there was a kill that was well-done, the frequent cutting to the office drones commenting on the next trope robbed The Cabin in the Woods of any sense of suspense or drama.  I actually liked the main characters of this movie.  That never happens in horror flicks!  If you are going to develop these characters, I don't see how you can choose not to make their fates dramatic.
How does this scene not lead to horror gold?!?

That's really the only negative feedback I have for The Cabin in the Woods.  This isn't supposed to be as comedic as Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, but it also has fewer legitimate scares than Club Dread.  These three films have a lot in common (good scripts and gore, for instance), but The Cabin in the Woods is waaay smarter and is technically better in almost every way, except slapstick humor.  And yet the movie seems to outsmart itself at times.  I would have loved to jump in my seat at any point instead of laughing very hard when Thor rides his motorcycle.  For as much as I enjoy this movie --- and rest assured, I will be buying it and re-watching it many times --- I was left a little disappointed by the complete lack of horror.  Maybe I won't mind that lack the next time I watch this, now that I know what's in store, but for now I can only say that it's a lot of fun to watch.


  1. I thought your criticism about the lack of scares was unjust and that you were viewing it too much from a horror angle. Yet, after rewatching it over the weekend, your assessment is dead on. A few well timed scares would have definitely added to the flick. Spot on, chap!

    1. I like to think of my point of view as being contagious, so thanks. And don't worry, that itchy rash will go away on its own in a few weeks.

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