Friday, April 13, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods: Ghoulish and giddy

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for strong, gory horror violence, profanity, drug use, sexuality and brief nudity 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.13.12

Folks will chortle — quite enthusiastically — about this one for awhile.

Although looking every inch like a standard exercise in snuffing attractive young performers in the usual macabre ways, The Cabin in the Woods is less a conventional horror flick and more an effort to return imagination, suspense and genuine surprise to a genre recently infested with distasteful (and often misogynistic) torture-porn.

When a basement trap door suddenly slams open, who could resist descending
those darkened stairs? Well, anybody with a reasonable sense of self-preservation,
which apparently doesn't include, from left, Marty (Fran Kranz), Curt (Chris
Hemsworth) and Jules (Anna Hutchison).
Filmmakers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have succeeded, and then some. This cheerfully lunatic fantasy is as much a genre game-changer as John Carpenter’s original Halloween, back in the day.

But make no mistake: The Cabin in the Woods may be intellectually exhilarating, but it’s no less gory. Indeed, the first 10 minutes of the third act are as gleefully deranged as the infamous lawnmower climax to Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. (Movie buffs who associate Jackson solely with The Lord of the Rings, and aren’t familiar with his early-career 1992 shocker, are advised to tread carefully.)

Its clever premise and unexpected plot twists notwithstanding, The Cabin in the Woods also gets considerable juice from the nervous gallows humor that laces the dialogue, which bears the unmistakable Whedon stamp. He and Goddard met when the latter became a writer on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel; they became best buds and — following Goddard’s big-screen scripting success with 2008’s Cloverfield — looked for something to do together.

They came up with an homage-laden concept with a difference; they co-wrote the script, and Goddard made his directorial debut during a three-month shoot in the spring of 2009. A 2010 release was planned, but then MGM — the studio to which the project was attached — fell into bankruptcy, and The Cabin in the Woods wound up in a nightmarish limbo far nastier than anything found within its storyline.

Two years later, MGM’s financial difficulties finally set right, The Cabin in the Woods has been unleashed to mess with our minds. Good thing, that.

The set-up will be recognized by those with a fondness for 1981’s The Evil Dead: Five rambunctious college friends flee civilization for a debauched weekend in an isolated backwoods cabin. Their route takes them through a mountainside tunnel; a raptor, lazily following the vehicle from outside the tunnel, suddenly slams into an invisible force-field ... a marvelous bit of well-staged disconnect on par with the spotlight that falls from “nowhere” and nearly brains Jim Carrey, at the beginning of The Truman Show.


The cabin, once reached, is either charmingly rustic or eerily unsettling, depending on one’s mindset. As night falls, and with inhibitions fading after too much beer and weed, our five unfortunate souls stumble into a creepy basement laden with odd junk and strange artifacts. A diary is found, one page containing a doom-laden Latin inscription. It’s read aloud, and, yes, all hell breaks loose.

But wait.

Earlier that same day...

A concurrent storyline follows two corporate programming wonks — Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) — as they arrive for what seems an ordinary day of work, while setting up some sort of computer-driven project. Their banter is that style of “heightened ordinary” that becomes amusing against these odd surroundings.

Sitterson and Hadley are joined by Lin (Amy Acker), a colleague from another department; vague references are made to an unspecified competition with a parallel group in Japan.

Clearly, all is not as it seems.

Not that it matters much to the poor kids in the cabin, who by now are fending off an inscription-resurrected family of insane zombies wielding knives, saws and a wickedly efficient cross between a bear trap and a yoyo. To make matters worse, our young heroes’ efforts to survive seem thwarted by outside interference.

What the heck is going on?

I’ll not say; discovery and surprise are much of the fun. Whedon and Goddard manage sharp pokes and respectful nods at everything from dream psychology and the smarmy, bread-and-circuses trappings of reality TV, to H.P. Lovecraft and the cinematic oeuvre of Dario Argento. But while it’s true that we viewers can be astonished only the first time, this film is guaranteed plenty of repeat viewing, thanks to the well-drawn characters, saucy verbal byplay and Lisa Lassek’s rip-snortin’ editing, which turns the second and third acts into an extended roller coaster ride.

Trust me: When it’s all over, you’ll be breathless.

The kids may be archetypes — with malice of forethought — but they’re no less interesting. The group more or less follows the lead of alpha male Curt (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth), a decisive athlete with a soft spot for his sexpot sweetie, Jules (Anna Hutchison). But Curt isn’t merely a jock, and Jules isn’t simply a tramp; thanks to deft expository dialogue, Hemsworth and Hutchison establish reasonably credible characters.

The “good girl” role is filled by Kristen Connolly’s Dana, who hopes the weekend will bury the memory of a recent relationship break-up. (As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!) She has been paired with group newcomer Holden (Jesse Williams), a decent guy with some smarts; he’s the only one able to translate that nasty Latin phrase ... alas, only after the damage has been done.

That leaves Marty (Fran Kranz), the class clown, who apparently intends to spend the entire weekend stoned. Mild tension is generated with the news that Marty once had a thing for Jules, but that serves mostly as emotional window-dressing; once things start moving, romantic triangles become immaterial.

The group dynamic feels right, with nobody overselling unnecessary angst; these five people get along and look out for each other. And that’s the point: These aren’t the anonymous cardboard cut-outs found in most horror franchises. We quickly come to care about these folks, which makes what follows that much harder to endure.

And yet, despite the suffering we experience as our protagonists suffer themselves, Goddard never loses the cheeky tone that makes everything go down so well.

Some will rebel at the use of the word “playful” when discussing a film that merrily hurls so much blood and viscera onto the screen, but hey: I call ’em as I see ’em. You’ll never again experience such a simultaneously hilarious and gruesome use of the ping of an arriving elevator.

I also respect this script’s ambitious reach, which is rewarded by a firm grasp of cinematic thrill-making. Whedon and Goddard have done no less than propose a remarkably sensible reason for the entire human history of nightmare-inducing Things That Go Bump In The Night: a tall order, that, and they pull it off.

Not to mention addressing other quirky little issues, such as why the often anonymous young actors who pop up in cheesier horror flicks, never seem to be seen again. What does happen to them ... really?

Fans who’ve followed Whedon’s career will have the added pleasure of recognizing numerous members of his repertory company. Aside from Acker (Angel and Dollhouse) and Kranz (Dollhouse), you’ll also spot Tom Lenk (Buffy), as Ronald the Intern. His role is brief, but memorable.

Bottom line: This flick is a hoot ’n’ a holler. It definitely isn’t for the faint of heart or easily offended, but anybody wondering how Whedon might have handled Buffy, the Vampire Slayer on, say, HBO — freed from mainstream network restraints — will regard The Cabin in the Woods as the answer to precisely that question.

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