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Movie Review: The First Great Surprise of 2012
Director: Drew Goddard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchinson, Richard Jenkins, Jesse Williams, Franz Kranz, Jodelle Ferland, Bradly Whitford, Tim De Zarn, Amy Acker, Brian White
I'm not sure I completely agree with this movie's philosophy on horror films. Maybe I'm all wrong about this, but what I got out of The Cabin in the Woods is splatter movies, mostly movies in which the killer wins in the end, help keep our inner demons at bay. By watching archetypical characters being manipulated by genre conventions and dying gruesome deaths, it sates our lust for blood and keeps evil out of the world. On the one hand, I do agree that horror films are a way of exorcising our demons, and that they do serve some other needs for the audience. Wes Craven made a compelling argument about it in his 1994 film Wes Craven's New Nightmare, where the Freddy Krueger character could only be defeated by making another movie about him and trapping him in the realm of fiction. Of course, although most, if not all, of the Nightmare movies concluded with final scenes which promised a sequel, Freddy was, in one way or another, defeated by the protagonist.
The Cabin in the Woods seems to argue against horror movies where good triumphs over evil. Yes, it is mentioned that the virginal good girl can be allowed to come out on top in the end. But there is a moment where we see events in Japan on a television monitor, and the evil there is destroyed without claiming any victims. In fact, the evil is ridiculed by being...well, let's just say it leads to one of the funniest moments in the film. What I want to know is, why is what happens in the Japan segment so bad? I mean, if you capture evil in fictional writing, and you have it defeated and ridiculed at the end of the story, don't you sort of weaken it? How is allowing good to triumph over evil empowering evil?
I thought about these questions for a week after seeing The Cabin in the Woods, and with some of the questions, I was able to draw some possible answers. I'm still not entirely sold on the film's philosophy, but the film delivers its ideas in such an inventive and intriguing way that I was happy to listen to what it had to say, even when I didn't agree with what it was saying. It's strange, to describe a movie like this as “thought provoking,” but that is exactly what The Cabin in the Woods is. The fact that it's also smart, funny, and entertaining as heck is just an added bonus.
The story is something we've seen in dozens of other genre films. Five college age friends – – school jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth); not-so-virginal good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly); sexpot Jules (Anna Hutchinson), who had only recently had her hair dyed blonde; stoner Marty (Franz Kranz); and nice guy intellectual Holden (Jesse Williams) – – travel out to a borrowed cabin for a weekend of fun and partying. In the tradition of The Evil Dead, the five of them wander into the cabin's cellar after the door is violently blown open (“Probably the wind,” someone says), and find a diary belonging to a young girl from the early 1900's named Patience Buckner (Jodelle Ferland). When Dana decides to read a Latin passage from the diary, she unwittingly raises a family of zombies from their slumber, and from there, all hell breaks loose. Sounds simple, right? Believe me, there is more to it than that.
It has something to do with the two working stiffs, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, we see in the opening scene, sipping vending machine coffee and placing bets on something that will remain unsaid by me. The trailers, dog gonnit, have revealed that they are manipulating the events in the cabin via levers and an unusual gas which somehow makes one character change his mind about staying together and deciding everyone should split up. “We'll cover more ground that way.” But what is their motivation? Why are they manipulating what happens in the cabin and endangering the students? The answer comes in a loving nod to H.P. Lovecraft; that's all I have to say about that.
Cloverfield scribe Drew Goddard makes his feature film debut here, and he seems to be having a blast with it. While he, for the most part, substitutes scares for self referential humor, there are a couple of moments in the film which do manage to work their way under the audience's skin. Take the scene where Jules is dared to make out with a wolf's severed head mounted on the wall. I chuckled when she gladly accepted the dare, but there's something about the way Goddard scores and shoots the scene when she carries the dare out that is kind of...unsettling. He also scores a few points when our heroes encounter a shady attendant (Tim De Zarn) at a run down gas station, although I can't help but ask who in the heck would stop at a gas station in that condition? What, are there no Shell stations around in these types of horror films? It's made clear that the kids are given a choice to listen to the attendant or turn around and go home. Given how hostile he comes across to them, it's surprising they didn't choose the latter.
And believe it or not, but as idiotic as the characters sometimes behave, I actually really liked these kids. While it's true that all of them are manipulated to fill their prescribed roles as genre clichés, in the few scenes where they are allowed to be themselves, they're actually quite endearing. Take the scene where Holden goes into his room, and sees he has a one way mirror that allows him to spy on Dana in the next room. We see there is some temptation in him to keep mum and spy on Dana while she changes into her swim suit, but I liked that screenwriters Goddard and Joss Whedon (TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer) allow his character some decency, and have him stop Dana and show her the one way mirror before she can undress.
One of the many questions I've heard asked about the film is just how bloody it is. Horror movie buffs won't care either way; for them, blood and gore is par for the course. For the most part, The Cabin in the Woods is fairly tame. Even the initial kill scene, which involves one character getting decapitated, is more suggestive than anything. This builds more tension in the scene, and it proves to be quite effective. Indeed, the scenes where the zombies attack are intense without being overly disgusting, and it works better that way. But something happens in the final twenty minutes, something a main character does which leads to an almost unbelievable blood bath. Gallons and gallons of blood are spilled in the climax of the film, and while I can't tell you what happens or what initiates it, I can tell you this: When one character says ,“Let's get this party started,” get ready. All hell is about to break loose.
Did the copious gore in the end bother me? Not at all. The entire film is so exhilaratingly directed by Goddard that it's almost impossible not to smile throughout the entire film. And because the movie is motivated by ideas, it never comes across as exploitative. The Cabin in the Woods is a wildly entertaining horror film, one that surprises you with a smart and intricate narrative and some fleshed out ideas. And whether or not you completely agree with what the movie has to say, it's always a pleasure to listen to how it says what it wants to say.
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)