Sunday, April 15, 2012

This Review of 'The Cabin in the Woods'

Quick Review: One of the smartest horror movies out right now and well worth seeing.

Full Review: If the names Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard do anything for you, then you already know why you should see this movie. These two don't just tackle the genres, they turn them on their heads, spin them around, and steal their lunch money. Whedon subverted the entire horror genre with 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer," both the movie and television series. (He's also directing a little movie called The Avengers.) Goddard gave us an entirely new take on the monster movie with Cloverfield and was a producer and writer for Lost, a show that kind of rewrote the rules for network television. So when these two turned their eye to the traditional genre of "Vulnerable Teens Trapped in the Woods and Chased by Something Bad," it was bound to be something we've never seen before.

From here on forward, I'm going to start talking about the movie. If you're already sold on it, stop here. Don't go any further, because the less you know about the plot, the better. The only other thing I will tell you is that there's plenty of scares, a lot of violence and gore, some brief nudity, and a lot of language. It is rated R, after all. As for the rest of it, you can read on if you feel you need to, but I really think you should just stop right here and try not to get spoiled if you hate spoilers. (Personally I was annoyed by what I picked up from accidentally flipping to a commercial, but that's just me.) You've been warned.

The basic premise of this movie seems simple enough. Five teens take a road trip to a remote cabin for a weekend. Each one fits a specific archetype usually found in these movies: the slut, the jock, the brain, the stoner, the virgin. Normally these movies have clear and distinct archetypes because it makes it easy to tell the attractive teens apart as they are getting hacked to pieces. This movie plays with that a bit, and we eventually learn why these situations seem to have the same exact kind of character.

Unlike most of these movies, our heroes are at least somewhat interesting. The biggest name is Chris Hemsworth, who we might know as Thor. Given that this movie was shot three years ago, before Hemsworth became a big-time action star, I'd say this movie is the epitome of great timing. Fans of Joss Whedon's show Dollhouse might recognize Fran Kranz, who definitely the most entertaining of all the teens. The other teens are relative unknowns but play their parts well and are hardly annoying. (And yes, I get that they aren't all teens, since they are college kids, but the characters' ages are never specified so that's the descriptor I'm going with.) You never get to the point of rooting for them to die, which is always nice in a horror movie, especially one like this.
You see, this entire scenario is a setup. These teens have been chosen to fulfill an unknown purpose carried out by a giant, secret, and very advanced organization. From the very beginning, the five are being led down the path to their own destruction and don't even know it. Calling the shots is Bradley Whitford, who's in top form here. He runs everything, from the unspeakable horrors he's inflicting on these teens, to the betting pool.

He's joined by a few Whedonverse alumni, Amy Acker and Tom Lenk, because it wouldn't be Joss Whedon if he didn't re-use some of his buddies from past projects.

The movie cuts back and forth between the teens trying to survive and the people trying to kill them. Combining the teen horror genre with the politics of the workplace is a refreshing touch, filled with a lot more comedy than you'd expect. (Unless you are familiar with Whedon's writing style.) You never see these workers as bad guys, just people doing their job because it needs to be done.

As the story progresses, we start to understand just what's going on and why Whitford and his crew are so determined to see these teens dead. This is where the movie explores the entire horror genre, and fans of horror movies will recognize the many nods to all the tropes. It's pretty easy to tell who will be the first kill, and this movie makes a point to follow the rules. There's a deeper story happening beneath the teens' own horrors, and it makes everyone, both the teens and the technicians, a little bit sympathetic.

Ultimately, there's a good reason these teens need to die bloody, and it brings the third act into a very different place than you might expect. This movie takes just about every horror movie out there, puts it in a giant blender, and hits frappe. It's a glorious moment that's both unexpected and, at the same time, makes perfect sense.

The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie about horror movies. It's a deconstruction, a parody, a celebration, and a criticism all rolled into one. It's about the movies, and in a very big way, the fans who ultimately must be appeased. Yes, we've seen this kind of deconstruction in the Scream movies, but this is an entirely new type of trope busting. Every moment, even the brief gratuitous nudity, has a reason. It's a smart take on the genre and well worth seeing. And the ending all but guarantees that there will be no pointless sequels.

I doubt this movie will be a huge blockbuster, but I am certain that it will attain cult status very quickly and have a nice life on DVD and Netflix. This is the movie that you will insist all your friends "have to watch." They've never heard of it, but when you sit them down and show it to them, they'll become instant fans.

Go see this movie so you can be the first to annoy your friends with what they're missing.

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