Tuesday, October 2, 2012
The Cabin in the Woods
Director: Drew Goddard
Starring: Kristen Connelly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, Amy Acker
Running Time: 95 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Somehow, someway, I was able to avoid all spoilers before seeing the supposedly genre bending horror curiosity The Cabin in the Woods, which was released to some surprising critical acclaim a few months ago. Now after actually viewing it, I'm forced to ask: "Spoil what?" Granted the plot does take a major meta plot u-turn in the last half hour, but it's mostly a conventional horror movie wrapped around a gimmick that at times seems forced and self-congratulatory. Produced and co-written by Joss Whedon and directed by his former Buffy collaborator Drew Goddard, this isn't a game-changer. It doesn't subvert the genre. If anything, it's too ambitious for its own good, going to great lengths to deliver a supposedly high-concept horror entry that thinks it has a lot to say when it's just really kind of a mess. No worries about spoilers here since I couldn't explain the direction this goes in if I tried, and like the film, it would feel like a lot of work for little pay off. It's hard to actually blame audiences for staying away as its one thing to release a fun, dumb slasher but quite another to pretend it's a deep, existential commentary on how we watch horror movies. But at least commend the filmmakers for attempting something different and ambitious, even if the final result is the same as usual, with just a little sci-fi thrown in for flavor.
When college students Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Holden (Jesse Williams) and Marty (Fran Kranz) decide to take a weekend vacation at Curt's cousin's remote cabin somewhere in the woods, the trip starts going terribly wrong. All four characters can be given one word horror descriptors such as Virgin, Jock, Slut, Brain and Stoner, although the film's biggest accomplishment is in making those stereotypes serve a purpose and actually mean something to the narrative. Well, kind of. It isn't long after they arrive that they see and hear strange things, a family of redneck zombies are summoned from the grave and we have at least what appears to be at first your run-of-the-mill slasher. And for the most part, it is. But there's a twist. We find out early that these five have actually been placed in some kind of controlled situation run by Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), trained technicians who are not only manipulating this horror environment from the control room, but influencing the kids' actions to achieve a desired outcome for their unseen boss. While Gary and Steve bet on the results and celebrate gory deaths, the film cuts back and forth between the control room and cabin as the five fight to survive and the purpose of the operation begins to reveal itself.
It's an interesting decision to reveal early on that all these would be victims are actually subjects being filmed in some kind of twisted horror Truman Show, leaving the big revelation in the how and the why. What's most disappointing about this approach isn't the actual idea but how these technicians overseeing the action aren't depicted as even the slightest bit creative, trotting out the same horror tropes we've been watching on screen for the past twenty years. Sure, they're laughing along with us, but how does that make the actual execution of it any less tired? Luckily, Jenkins and Whitford are a riot in their roles and their jokes help carry a crazy, convoluted premise that turns out to be more trouble than its worth. The last 40 minutes you're either on board with or you're not, as the only thing that is predictable is that these kids won't go down without a fight and the masterminds behind the project will have to dramatically change course to get the job done. I not only found the big revelation at the end (featuring a cameo by a big name actress) silly, but a dealbreaker considering Whedon and Goddard painted themselves into a corner by having the whole story rest on it. None of the performances are anything to write home about, though that hardly matters given how little is asked of them. Besides Jenkins and Whitford, only Fran Kranz makes a significant impression as stoner Marty, gobbling up the film's best one-liners. A pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth shows few signs he would be that strong screen presence down the road, while Kristen Connolly is bland enough as the protagonist that I actually had problems rooting for her.
Whenever you see Joss Whedon's name attached to a project it's only natural for fans to expect greatness. Not being overly familiar with his other work, I wasn't. And yet this still feels like a big let down. It's exciting whenever the horror genre goes in a new direction, but this only feels like a slight deviation. At the end of the day, it doesn't differ much from the usual slashers we're bombarded with and at points, it's even a little worse. Just because a movie is self-referential doesn't make it groundbreaking. A similar premise involving a mysterious project was well presented a few years ago in The Box and everyone inexplicably seemed to think it was the worst thing they've ever seen. But that was hard sci-fi with ideas. The Cabin in the Woods feels more like an inside joke for horror fans. Despite being nonsensical, there's no denying it has its moments and is skillfully directed, but the generic script fails its audience by promising a fresh spin that never comes.