The Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Kristen Connelly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, Amy Acker, Tim De Zam
R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity.
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With each passing year, horror films struggle to find a new take on a stale genre. Whether it's the advent of torture porn in the early '00s or the found footage style that's dominated the latter half, few films build on the basics of what made the genre so exciting. While The Cabin in the Woods is almost too self aware to be great, its gimmick isn't that far fetched and it is so immensely enjoyable that many of its weaknesses are easier to ignore.
If you know too much going into the film, it won't be nearly as enjoyable which makes it very difficult for a critic to discuss its various themes and successes without going into too much detail. I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but be mindful that some of my comments may come very close. The film opens with five college students, each reasonably intelligent, but falling into five archetypes most commonly found in the horror genre. There's the jock (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth), the virgin (ex-soap star Kristen Connolly), the slut (former Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Anna Hutchinson), the deadbeat stoner (Dollhouse regular Fran Kranz) and the geek (Jesse Williams, seen in a recurring role on Grey's Anatomy). Setting out to a friend's cabin in the woods, the quintet meet the requisite creepy local at a seemingly derelict gas station before making their winding escape to the isolated cabin.
That's half of the story. The other half, hinted at in the trailer, revolves around four onlookers observing the twenty-somethings as they approach the cabin and attempting to control their actions once inside. The two segments are intercut to keep the audience guessing where the film is going and the existence of the not-so-casual observers will be the subject of much internal debate as the film progresses, each step confusing or altering the preconceived notion you conjure up every five minutes.
While none of the five young adults are given more than perfunctory character development, it's easy to tell they're having fun. Adding gravitas to the project are the longtime actors sitting in as observers. Emmy winner Bradley Whitford and Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins have a friendly chemistry that keeps the audience amused and engaged when some of the more childish elements are on display. There's also a surprise guest actress making her vocal appearance late in the film. None of the actors are particularly outstanding.
Drew Goddard, who wrote a number of episodes of the acclaimed Joss Whedon shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Alias as well as episodes of J.J. Abrams' Lost and Abrams' big screen Cloverfield has teamed up with Whedon on his directorial debut, an examination of the horror genre, its pitfalls, problems and predictability. While it holds close to many of the values it makes fun of, the ultimate outcome is one which you cannot see coming too soon and whose general thrust changes rather unpredictably. This makes the film a lot more fun that it would have been had it been too serious.
It's been more than 15 years since the first fully self-aware horror film Scream became a huge hit and films are still trying to use that concept to their advantage, whether it's in the form of the aforementioned found footage horror or films that wallow in their familiarity with past horror staples like Trick 'r Treat, everyone wants to be the next big thing. That same feeling seeps from every frame of The Cabin in the Woods and while it succeeds at being a departure from all that surrounds it, there are too many similarities to Wes Craven's genre re-building feature to be something truly unique. Matter of fact, there are a couple of ways that Cabin could have ended to give this idea more weight.
The Cabin in the Woods is going to seem rather revolutionary to a lot of people and while I won't disagree entirely, there is something all too familiar about the film. While I recognize that this is the intention and there are some interesting plays on genre convention, I remain underwhelmed by that idea. It's intriguing and inventive, but not the genre re-definin effort it should have been.
June 22, 2012