It’s one of the most anticipated horror films in years, so gird your loins as Dave and Josh battle it out with their dueling reviews of… CABIN IN THE WOODS!
First Up – Dave:
If you’ve been perusing the reviews of Cabin in the Woods, then you’ve probably noticed that spoilers are common. This movie is such a departure from the norm that it’s hard to talk about without giving something away. Although you might try, there really aren’t other movies to compare it to. Which is an unbelievable thing to say considering how many movies it borrows from. All but the most casual of horror fans will recognize the familiar bits and pieces – a little Texas Chainsaw here, a dash of Evil Dead there. And the studio took full advantage of this in the marketing – the trailer lulls you with the familiar while simultaneously warning you that nothing is what it seems. And brother, they aren’t kidding about that last part.
So how does a spoiler-hater like myself begin to talk about a movie like this? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am going to attempt the impossible – I’m going to tell you exactly what Cabin in the Woods is all about without giving anything away – mostly.
You see, horror movies are a metaphor for the universe. Allow me to explain.
At first glance, everything around us appears neatly bound by the various laws of physics – action and reaction, objects in motion tend to stay in motion – that kind of thing. But upon closer scrutiny, the fabric of spacetime begins to fray at the edges. All the cogs and wheels just don’t quite mesh. The great expanse abounds with mystery: Why is there more matter than antimatter? Why does light behave as both a wave and particle? Why does our understanding of the universe begin to fall apart when gravity is added to the mix? For decades physicists have put marker to whiteboard in search of a Grand Unified Field Theory that would finally solve the inconsistencies.
As any die-hard horror fan knows, the movies we love so much often rely on familiar formulas and also tend to be rife with inexplicable actions: Why would anyone walk backwards into a dark room? Why would a person descend a stairway alone into a pitch-black basement? Why would someone ever think it’s better to split up the group to search the creepy house, rather than stick together? These are the questions that have been nagging at us for years, and have spawned no small amount of armchair theorizing amongst fans.
As it turns out, the answers to these age old mysteries reside in the Cabin in the Woods – it is our “Grand Unified Field Theory” of horror. Cabin takes all these idiosyncrasies from decades of films and wraps them up with an inky black bow. Pretty amazing, no?
Now before I write this next part, let me just say – I loved this movie. Before the credits had even quit rolling, I was ready to watch it again. In my opinion, it deserves all the accolades being thrown its way, and then some.
Cabin does have it’s share of haters – I know because I heard some of them being very vocal about it as they were leaving the theater. Personally, I can’t even wrap my mind around not liking this film, however there is one term I’ve seen used to describe it that I would have to take issue with, and that is “game changer.” Because that is something this movie is not.
As awesome as I think it is, Cabin in the Woods does not represent a fork in the road for horror. It is not a genre-defining movie on the order Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Halloween. By design (undoubtedly Joss Whedon‘s design) it leaves nowhere to go. There is no sequel, no franchise, and no sub-genre to be spawned. It is a dark and clever anomaly – and that is part of what I find so beautiful about it.
The bottom line? If you consider yourself a well-versed horror fan, I think you will love this movie. Go see it. Now. Call in sick – I’ll write your boss a note. More casual fans should enjoy it too, but I think it’s important not to buy into all the hype. Forget what you’ve read, clear your head, buy some popcorn – with extra butter, if that’s your thing – and enjoy the ride.
Next Up – Josh:
Cabin in the Woods – the new film directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) and written by Goddard and geek god Joss Whedon – opens this weekend, carrying with it the weight of years of expectations and hype. Filmed almost three years ago, Cabin had long been rumored to be something special, a horror show of epic proportions and a master-class in meta deconstructions of the horror genre. It was set to be released in early 2010, pushed back a full year so the studio could 3D-ize it, and then left in purgatory when MGM’s financial woes exploded. Picked up by Lionsgate, Cabin in the Woods is hitting the theaters after three years of fans salivating over its release. Can it live up to that hype?
In my opinion, no, but next to nothing can survive those demands. Cabin in the Woods doesn’t re-invent the wheel, and you’re not going to see the horror genre in shockingly new ways when the credits roll. Hell, odds are about nil that you’ll ever even be remotely scared. All that said, Cabin can still be a hell of a good time. The main characters are a fun groups of hotties, there’s humor abound from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the institutional workers controlling this chaos, and the script undoubtedly knows its ways around the tropes and clichés of the horror genre. How much you enjoy it, though, largely depends on if you go for the laughs, scares, or gore.
Cabin in the Woods tells the story of the usual kids – Curt (the jock); Jules (his slutty girlfriend); Dana (their virginal friend); Holden (the guy they hope to hook her up with); and Marty (their silly stoner pal) – taking a trip out to the woods to get high and get their swerve on. Shit, not surprisingly, goes wrong. But if all that sounds a bit generic and obvious, that’s the point. In a parallel plot, we see a shady institution monitoring these five people; two cynical white-collars – Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) – crack jokes and push buttons to make these kids’ fates go as planned, pulling every lever to make sure the traditional horror tropes come to life. Their cracks make it obvious that this is an age-old game, a tradition being played out for some unfathomable reason. The audience is left to ponder whose side they’re on – the stupid kids or the snide bureaucrats.
Choosing sides isn’t the fun, though. This isn’t really about any of the characters. It’s more about watching the movie crack jokes about the horror genre and use meta references to call attention to the standards that have developed over the years. If you go for anything else, you’ll be disappointed. Cabin isn’t scary in the slightest. Arguably, it’s not supposed to be, but you could definitely ask more of the movie’s jokes and it’s meta commentary as well. If you’re a horror fan, most of these laughs – about who gets killed in horror movies, the stupid things they do along the way, and the obvious ideas that never go through their heads – will be pretty old hat. But a third-act save and solid performances from part of the cast cut through most of those issues.
Major props go to Jenkins and Whitford, whose dry deliveries ring laughs out of the idea of killing kids for the greater good. As Curt, Chris Hemsworth proves his Thor charisma isn’t a recent invention (as this was shot almost two years before that); and Fran Kranz, as the token stoner buddy, gets more great laughs once the film gets his more clichéd moments out of the way (yeah, the first act is pretty clunky.) Sadly, the girls are left to live out their bland stereotypes, and Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams is basically a pretty face to slap some rock-hard abs on (weird, for the group’s “scholar.”) In a flick that doesn’t have a real horror leg to stand on, thank God you’ve got some pleasant peeps to hang with for ninety minutes.
Of course, what Cabin in the Woods really lives or dies by is its genius deconstruction of the whole horror genre, which is sadly pretty far from genius. We get the standard intro to the soon-to-be victims, and we get them fumbling through the haunted cabin, handling all the usual cryptic items that typically bring forth some form of monstrous being. It’s a good laugh as we see the workers over at Shady Institution Inc. placing their bets on which monster the kids will summon, but it never adds up to much more than. It doesn’t help that the monsters they conjure up – the Buckners, a family of “pain-worshipping redneck zombies” – are stock reanimated corpses, rocking bear traps on chains, and they speak to all of the horror genre’s blandness and none of its fun. At times, the Buckners crossed with the movie’s closing scenes make it read like some kind of anti-horror movie, something meant to criticize the very idea of trying to scare audiences. There’s a few moments you can feel Whedon’s intentions getting away from him, playing like one of those Buffy episodes that seems to desperately lose track of its own theme. He can’t decide if he wants to celebrate the genre, take it down a peg, or pull it apart and examine it like clockwork. You could say he’s doing all of the above, but most of the ideas here don’t seem to be much more than a reflection of broad horror movie clichés coupled with the kinds of reflections on the genre you might have over a few beers with friends. That said, while third act of the film might not be rocket science, it does offer up some bigger, more interesting ideas, and more importantly, it offers up the monsters and the gore in spades.
I know I’m in the minority in on this one, as most of the reviews for the movie – especially on fan sites – have been through the roof. I’m glad people are digging it, but I’d argue you can see these ideas tackled much better elsewhere right now: 21 Jump Street offers more, and fresher, meta laughs while lovingly busting a genre’s chops, and Hunger Games has more interesting things to say about our society’s obsessions with violence. I love the idea that people actually want to think about the movies and the genres they watch; still, I can’t shake the feeling that the movie isn’t really bringing to light anything most horror fans haven’t already thought a hundred times before: Are horror fans complicit in the murderous images that are created for them? What is the cultural need to continually see kids killed off again? And why do we always do it with the same damn tropes? Sure, these questions go slightly deeper than the routines brought up in Scream. But at least Scream managed to be a film that was consistently funny and shockingly tense and gory at the same time; Cabin can’t claim either of these ideas to the same degree. It’s a fun film and it’s got some cool ideas up its sleeve, but let’s not give it credit for much more than that.