Tuesday, November 01, 2016

"The Cabin in the Woods": review

[WARNING: here be spoilers.]

With 2012's "The Cabin in the Woods," there's much to love, some things to hate, and plenty to think about. "Cabin" is produced by Joss Whedon, known for masterminding culturally iconic TV fare like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dollhouse," and "Firefly," as well as movies like "The Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Whedon co-wrote the screenplay for "Cabin" with Drew Goddard, who also helmed the film in his directorial debut.

The story is ostensibly about five college kids who drive out to a remote cabin in the woods (ta-dah!); the kids are level-headed Dana (Kristen Connolly), studly Curt (Aussie Chris Hemsworth sporting his George Kirk-style American accent), sultry Jules (Anna Hutchison), unwontedly perceptive stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), and slightly nerdy Holden (Jesse Williams). What the kids don't know is that the cabin in question lies within a secret compound. An entire staff consisting of hundreds of employees (including the hilariously bureaucratic and world-weary Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as Hadley and Sitterson) can monitor even the most minor of events in and around the cabin, so the kids have no idea that they're actually stepping into a morbid version of "The Truman Show."

Things get even more meta when we discover that the facility is there for a reason—a reason that becomes clearer as the kids die off one by one: every year, a group of youths must be lured to certain sites all around the world to be sacrificed to The Ancient Ones: evil gods who dwell beneath the earth. If the gods aren't adequately propitiated, they will rise and destroy all life in a holocaust of agony. These facilities contain enormous holding areas in which are kept various minor evils (minor relative to The Ancient Ones) like werewolves, basilisks, angry spirits, the twins from "The Shining," zombies, and so on, in a bonanza of popular horror-movie references (see more about those references here). The cabin is rigged to manipulate the kids into its cellar, and once there, the unknowing victims handle various musty items, thereby inadvertently triggering the release of a set of monsters corresponding to a given item. In this group's case, it's a diary with some lines of Latin text that awaken an undead family of pain-worshippers. Once that happens, it's all downhill from there.

If you've already guessed that we'll come down to a "final girl," you're half right. The movie toys with your expectations, which are based on what you already know about horror movies. If you've guessed that some of the survivors will find their way beyond the cabin and into the monster-filled facility itself, you get a prize. The big question is whether the kids' discovery of the facility will lead to a salubrious destruction of the system or to the ruin of the earth.

Horror movies that go meta are nothing new. 1996's "Scream" is a good example of self-aware horror-comedy (and the moment a horror movie goes the self-aware route, it's inevitably a horror-comedy). Whedon himself has referred to "Cabin" as "a loving hate letter" to horror films, incorporating and subverting genre elements in a bid both to criticize horror movies and to elevate them. Perhaps because Whedon is mocking the typical horror template, I found most of the jump scares to be predictable (I admit I was fooled by the wall-mounted wolf's head, which I had fully expected to eat Jules's face off while she was making out with it). In terms of self-conscious trope-borrowing, I couldn't help but think that a good proportion of the visuals seemed derivative of work done by Sam Raimi (whose work is slyly and openly referred to multiple times in "Cabin") and the big-ass, violently thrashing creatures normally associated with Peter Jackson. So a major aesthetic question for me is: if this movie is being deliberately unoriginal, to what extent is that a strike against it?

Overall, I think I enjoyed the meta aspect of "The Cabin in the Woods." Whedon is also known for infusing his scripts with energy and humor, and these were in great supply all through the film. Some of the humor was painfully corny ("I'm still on speakerphone, aren't I?"), but a lot of it was genuinely witty. As the kids started dying off, I wasn't sure, at first, that they were really dying. I wondered whether this wasn't a take-off of the "Hunger Games" scenario, but with supposedly murdered college kids being whisked off to some safe spot after appearing to have been dispatched. Alas, no: the kids really are dying, and although I'm not quite sure of the mechanics, their blood is somehow being drained and poured as an offering to The Ancient Ones during scenes that look almost exactly like scenes in the "Blade" movies.

Because the movie goes meta, it's hard to point at flaws and declare that they're really flaws: for all I know, the filmmakers made those "mistakes" deliberately. That said, I'll point out two things I disliked. First, there's the "system purge" scene, in which two of our protags make it into the compound and find themselves inside what must be The Most Important Room in the Complex... and it's completely unguarded. That struck me as mightily implausible, but again, it could be that Whedon and Goddard deliberately wove such stupidity into the plot. If they did, though, then the moment is more a critique of similar scenes in action movies than it is a critique of anything that normally happens in horror films.* My other problem was with the glimpse of The Ancient One that we got at the end. Considering how the movie built the deities up as Lovecraftian horrors, I was thoroughly disappointed when the appendage that erupted out of the ground proved to be just a human-looking arm and not a tentacle. (Or would that have strayed too far into Guillermo del Toro territory? Del Toro cornered the market on tentacles with his Hellboy movies.)

Overall, then, I found "The Cabin in the Woods" to be entertaining, even though there were plot holes, visual disappointments, and predictable jump scares that, because predictable, weren't scary. I laughed when I was supposed to laugh, and I caught the meta where I think I was supposed to catch the meta. Although there were aspects of the film that I didn't like, those negatives were outweighed by the film's positives. Because going meta isn't particularly original in the horror genre anymore, I can't give "Cabin" many points for creativity on that score, but the plotting and dialogue did much to make up for that lack.

One final thing: the movie felt like a bloated take on one of Stephen King's more memorable short stories: "Rainy Season." In King's story, a young couple must be sacrificed every seven years to the dark and evil powers that keep a small Maine town prosperous. For the ritual to work, the couple must be warned that they should leave, then they must choose to remain in town. (The issue of choice comes up frequently in "Cabin" as well.) That night, a rain of evil, fanged frogs will inundate the town, eating their way into the couple's lodging. The morning sun then melts the frogs away, leaving nothing. No one dares question the ritual; the dark powers are always listening. Yeah... "Cabin" is a lot like that. A lot like that.



*Admittedly, "the strangely unattended lab" is a trope of sci-fi/horror flicks.



10 comments:

John Lee said...

The biggest problem I had with the movie was certainly the giant hand that we saw at the final scene, but it wasn't because it wasn't Lovecraftian (that certainly would have been a nice homage). It was because that means that there really is no way to make a sequel. I really liked the movie. Bradley Whitford's character wanting so badly to see the merman was quite funny.

Kevin Kim said...

Maybe the sequel was already made: "This Is The End." Heh.

SJHoneywell said...

The giant hand doesn't bother me at all. If you really want to tie the film into Lovecraft's mythos, there are a few of his Elder Gods that had some human-like appendages. Cthulhu had human arms, albeit bulbous and slimy ones.

What works for me here is sort of the meta-meta level. The Cabin in the Woods essentially tries to put every other horror movie in context. The kids from The Shining? They happened because of this film. The scary Japanese kids from Ju-On or Ringu? Happened because of this. Freddy, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees...all here. It creates a sort of One Film to Rule Them All mentality--all horror leads eventually to the cabin.

That is pure genius. It essentially tries to unite the entire genre into a single worldview/universe. Even if the movie sucked, that idea makes it noteworthy.

Kevin Kim said...

Steve,

Luckily, the movie didn't suck. If anything, I plan to watch it again soon. As you mentioned in your review of it, there are many references that weren't caught the first time around (although the YouTube video to which I linked is quite helpful in that regard).

Good point about Cthulhu/Lovecraft. I guess I'm all in for tentacles, which I suppose makes me a "Deltorovian." Or maybe just a half-Asian who likes his mollusks. Yum.

Kevin Kim said...

Steve,

BTW, since I have the film on Amazon Video, it comes with trivia that you can access while the film is running by simply moving your cursor. There's some very interesting trivia about this film, including the fact that Fran Kranz, who plays stoner Marty, is so ripped that he couldn't go shirtless during the lake scene because he would have out-muscled the other male actors. This is also why he had to wear baggier-than-usual clothing the whole time.

Surprises Aplenty said...

Gord Sellar had a post years ago about how Koreans enjoy seafood so much, and in all its unprocessed organicness (I ate Captain Highliner fish sticks as a child. What were they? I don't know. Fish? - No eyes or identifiable parts) that Lovecraftian images would only make them vaguely hungry.

I saw parts of "Tucker And Dale Vs Evil" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1465522/) on Youtube and the concept was funny but even after a mere ten minutes, it felt repetitive. The story is a group of university students go into a rural area and mistake kindly hillbillies for killers. Through a series of accidents a few kill themselves so the students are even more afraid of the hillbillies, who only want to help. The movie turned Friday the 13th movies around but humourous deaths don't carry a movie the way horrible deaths do.

Kevin Kim said...

Brian,

To each his own. Vive la différence! As I posted earlier, I'll be re-watching "Tucker and Dale," with which I'm very familiar; I thought the film was hilarious.

Horrible deaths in horror movies don't do it for me anymore. When I was a kid, I used to be freaked out by pretty much everything, but as I got older, I got number (numb-er, not num-ber), and now pretty much every horror movie is a horror-comedy to me. I just point and laugh when I see the gore or the monster or the cruelty.

Of course, actual video of actually horrible events can still affect me deeply; I can separate fact and from fantasy well enough to compartmentalize my experiences of the real and the unreal. Comical animal cruelty in a movie will make me laugh; real-life animal cruelty infuriates me and/or fills me with pity and compassion. I won't blink at somebody's head being slowly sawed off in a movie, but I can't bear to watch LiveLeak videos of ISIS beheadings.

Surprises Aplenty said...

I'm so glad you wrote "re-watch". Only after I posted did I see that it in your watching queue. I brought the movie up due to its horror-humour connection to the film you watched, not because you had mentioned that you would soon watch it. Glad I didn't spoil it.
Oh, and a good explanation for "number"; it would have confused me otherwise.

John from Daejeon said...

"Cabin in the Woods" is 95% a second-rate episode/amalgamation of the Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" of which Goddard wrote several of the better episodes. It's amazing no lawsuits were filed, but all this actually takes place in Whedon's Buffyverse between seasons five and six. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" introduced "the Initiative" in season 4, so you really need to start watching from there to get the whole backstory and even from the begging of "Buffy/Angel" to see where many of the evil players in "Cabin" first entered the "Buffy/Angel" universe. And as Whedon likes staying in-house, so besides a writer, he also used a couple of actors in "Cabin." It's just too bad he didn't use all his "Buffy/Angel" actors instead of just Amy and Tom, but then it would have been 100% a sub-par "Buffy" episode.

Kevin Kim said...

John,

What made the movie second-rate for you? Where did it fail? What could have been done to make it first-rate for you? Color me curious.