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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Cabin in the Woods

11. Cabin in the Woods

Days behind review schedule: Two weeks. To be fair, though, that’s actually not bad compared with my usual record.

Alternate Title: “The Evil Whed(on)”. Out of practice, natch.

The Gist: Shoggoths and Old Ones and ghouls, oh my! Joss Whedon’s return to the horror stable finally sees the light of day.

Currently listening to: "Hawaiian War Chant" by Spike Jones and his Orchestra… Probably best not to ask. :S

The Experience: Now that I've gotten a considerable amount of my backlog of reviews out of the way in Spitting Out the Demons, and since I have some new films to review for the first time in the better part of a month, I've decided to post a review of a film that actually came out relatively recently. Yes, it’s true! The dawning of the age of Aquarius has come again! Raggedy Adams has something to write about for a change!

Joking aside, this is actually the ideal time to talk about the next film, as it’s been out long enough for the initial buzz to take its effect, for better or worse, and the overall opinion of it has been mostly positive but for a few niggles which I’ll get to in a moment. I should warn those who haven’t seen it, though, that I’m going to reveal some pretty integral plot-points so I'm just gonna slap this review with a big old BEWARE!! SPOILERS AHEAD!! STEER CLEAR IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS FILM!!

… Okay, let’s get on with it.

Cabin in the Woods reteams Buffy alumni Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield) and returns to what is essentially their bread and butter: post-modern tweaks of the horror genre. The plot is pretty much your standard horror fare, up to a point at least: a group of college kids (including a pre-Asgard Chris Hemsworth and Fran Kranz as living proof that Joss Whedon smokes way too much weed) drive to the woods for spring break. There’s a cabin there. They go down to the basement, mess with the wrong magical MacGuffin and things, as they say, go bump in the night.

The thing that differentiates this from the usual Evil Dead knock-offs is that in this movie, the mechanism behind the evil lurking in the woods is not an all-powerful demon or some backwoods pig rapists, but a pair of schlubby middle-aged technicians (played excellently by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in an underground facility, carefully orchestrating the ritualistic sacrifice of the teenagers, (releasing monsters into the enclosed woods, covertly dosing the prey with chemicals to make them more likely to act recklessly,) in accordance with a formula that is at once the backbone of the horror genre and also a critique of the homogenizing effect it has on cinema and audiences. This is a film about ideas, specifically ideas about what we find more frightening: the monster in the cupboard, or the possibility of people controlling them. In most horror films this fact would be a closely guarded secret played out as a big reveal or twist right at the end of the film, but in Cabin it’s clear pretty much from the first twenty minutes that this is how it’s going down, and the “puppeteer” device is used as both the mechanism and the justification of the plot’s progression; as Jenkins’ character nonchalantly notes, they rig the game as much as they have to, but if the kids don’t transgress, they can’t be punished.

As is expected by now, the film comes thick with Whedon’s signature dialogue - albeit nowhere near as idiosyncratic as in Firefly/Serenity - and casual but subtle subversions of the very genre conventions the film relies upon: the “jock” is a sociology major, the “dumb” blonde’s sudden libido increase and IQ drop is being manipulated through chemical additives to her hair dye, and the “stoner” is the first one to realise something is not quite right. And let’s not forget the monsters. All of them. Yeah, you thought you were just going to get one lame-ass villain from the guy who created Buffy and Angel? FUCK NO!! This movie has a veritable smorgasbord of monsters. Just not all at the same time, mark you, but fear not, horror fans: after several teases, when it counts, you get plenty of variety AND bang for your buck. Literally; there’s gore and tits and witty banter galore. This is the movie Joss Whedon should have gotten made ten years ago (even if you excuse the fact it was on the shelf for three of those years due to original studio MGM going through a messy bankruptcy).

One of the few major criticisms I've heard regarding Cabin in the Woods is that it’s either “not scary enough” or “not scary at all”, which frankly baffles me, because I happened to find Ghostbusters II and Thomas the Tank Engine terrifying as a child; evidently what one person thinks is scary is all relative and therefore not a sure-fire basis for a critical approach to film-going  True, many of the scares are of the jump-variety, but that’s par for the course at this point; most people’s beef with the film is that the tension is frequently sabotaged by the constant cutting away to the orchestration behind the scenes. My counter-argument to this would be “Well, that’s clearly the point! We've seen this movie’s arc dozens, maybe HUNDREDS of times! How can something this overused hold any kind of tension for you?” Kim Newman, who may as well be Official Historian of All That Is Scary, said in his review that the film evokes H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker’s work without achieving their sense of existential dread, which I suppose is sort of a valid point, but my lame counter to that would be that the snarky, pastiche-driven nature of the film and of Whedon’s signature dialogue supersedes the level of heavy gloom inherent in either of those two writers’ oeuvre, but that alone shouldn't be held as a criticism of the film. After all, some of the best horror films are comedies in disguise. Personally, my line on the subject of “scary” is this: anyone who has extolled the virtues of Saw or The Human Centipede, but has not seen Videodrome or American Werewolf in London, has no concept of true horror cinema.

However, that does bring us to the other issue some people have taken with the film: its self-awareness. My esteemed colleague, David “Balders” Baldwin, noted that Cabin not only isn't remotely scary, but also doesn't do anything that Scream didn't do 16 years ago. I have to say that I respectfully disagree; whilst Scream was one of the first films to apply the idea of post-modernist horror to cinema, it didn't really use any techniques other than self-reference to achieve this; thus, what you got was a lot of talky scenes of Neve Campbell or Jamie Kennedy or Skeet Ulrich expounding on the banality of formulaic horror movies… whilst playing those same genre tropes out almost without fail. Nowhere in Scream or its sequels does it attempt to subvert the genre on the scale that Cabin does, and its legacy is ultimately one of perpetuating the formula it originally set itself as being detached from. Cabin in the Woods evokes the formula of the horror genre without ever explicitly referring to it like it’s the Holy fucking Bible, so there are no Jamie Lee Curtis or Horror Movie Rules conversations; it’s just the backdrop of the world in which the characters live.

Also, I would further point out to Mr Baldwin that Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is also a post-modern horror comedy featuring a cabin in the woods but those facts doesn't make it inherently more original or fun than Cabin, and that Scream was itself a full 4 years after Whedon’s (admittedly heavily rewritten) Buffy the Vampire Slayer film came out in cinemas, so I'm prepared to argue that Scream’s creator Kevin Williamson is the imitator and not the originator, but that would be a stretch and a nitpick wrapped into one. The point is this is something fans of Joss Whedon have been rooting for a long time: a return to horror, and a return to the big screen. Whether you’re a horror fan or a Buffy fan or just a person who likes good movies, Cabin in the Woods is a juicy little movie with lots going on. Well done, Joss. You've earned it.

I drank the Kool-Aid. Nuff said.

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