Friday, April 27, 2012

Jolting the Horror Genre Back to Life: The Cabin in the Woods

Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth, and Anna Hutchinson in The Cabin in the Woods

Of all the movie genres, horror has probably been the most debased in recent years. From the highs of films like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), through to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987), many practitioners of the scary arts have been interested in frightening audiences in a smart and savvy manner. But, of late, the genre has been taken over by the barbaric Visigoths, the makers of ‘torture porn’ films like the Saw and Hostel, movie franchises that exist merely to put their characters (though there’s not much characterization involved) through the paces solely so horrible things happen to them in slow, gruesome and highly explicit ways. Subtlety was out, and gore for the sake of just being gross was in. The Haunting eschewed all explicit horror and implied everything, which is what made it so highly effective; I still consider it to be the best horror movie ever made. (There are worthwhile gory horror movies, like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Peter Jackson’s Braindead, aka Dead Alive (1992), but not many.) I’ve never seen a whole Saw or Hostel movie – just enough to be immediately turned off – but I’ve been suckered in by exploitative art house European derivations of those films, such as The Descent (2005) and A L’interieur (Inside) (2007) that have been let into film festivals. Since those needed to be reviewed, I had to sit through the damned things. I was also offended by the empty, glib Shaun of the Dead (2004), a zombie movie which tried to have it both ways: gratuitously and jokingly killing off its characters, then asking us to care about their deaths afterwards. Once in awhile, a worthwhile horror film like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2004) came along, a well done albeit conventional movie that didn’t break the mold, but intelligently respected horror conventions and added some decent characterization in the process. And the sensational, gripping opening of Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) showed the heights of what the genre could attain, even though the film settled down and became rather dull after its prologue.

Mostly though, I’d given up ever expecting to see a horror film with brains or originality – until The Cabin in the Woods. Finally, we have a horror movie that actually reworks the clich├ęs and tired tropes of the genre in a unique fashion. Not surprisingly, the brains behind it is Joss Whedon, whose myriad credits – TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (and its film incarnation Serenity) and his viral video Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog have all successfully played with genre conventions, be they horror, science fiction, westerns or musicals, and made something fresh and complex out of them. (His cinematic take on Marvel Comics’ The Avengers, which he wrote and directed, and which opens next week, will likely be typically innovative.) In Whedon’s welcoming universe, genre is respected, gently mocked and twisted into new permutations. He acknowledges and spoofs its conventions without losing sight of why they worked in the first place, perhaps never more so than in The Cabin in the Woods.

The film begins with two wisecracking technicians (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford) working out of an operation reminiscent of the intelligence headquarters on TV’s 24, whose joshing and kibitzing seems innocent enough. But when the action shifts to a group of twentysomethings – couple Jules (Anna Hutchison) and Kurt (Chris Hemsworth); Jules’ friend Dana (Kristen Connolly); Holden (Jesse Williams) who is Kurt’s friend (and hoped-for set up for Dana); and their pal, perpetual stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) – the mood quickly begins to darken. How the older guys and the young folk, who are off on a jaunt to the symbolic cabin in the woods, connect is fascinating but something that cannot be revealed in this review, as it will spoil your enjoyment of this detailed story. (The less you know about the particulars of the plot the better. Fortunately, the TV trailer I’ve seen doesn’t spill any secrets.)

Joss Whedon
Suffice it to say, The Cabin in the Woods contains, besides nods to horror movies, shout-outs to classic (and pulp) horror literature, mythology and folklore and our modern technological world, among other sources. But none of these are obvious, and The Cabin in the Woods never devolves into self-conscious Scream-like movies where all the horror picture references – and those were the only ones those movies ever had – eventually morphed and blended into each other so much that the films felt hermetic and programmed. The Cabin in the Woods is also very funny, both in how it plays with what we expect to unfold in a horror movie set in a deserted cabin in the woods, and how it addresses all the illogical and silly plot twists extant in so many fright flicks. Except for a few implausibilities near the conclusion when all is unveiled, this movie makes believable sense. It also deftly balances horror and comedy, something that outside of Braindead, John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981), Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and a few others, is not a feat easily accomplished. Most impressive, Drew Goddard, who co-wrote the movie with Whedon (Whedon also produced), manages to up the ante, going from an intimate setting to one unfolding on a cosmic scale without a single misstep. (One can’t say the same for Goddard’s TV work, which includes Alias and Lost. Those shows never sustained their story-lines, though J.J. Abrams, who created or co-created the two series, has to take much of the blame for sabotaging the former and irritating us with the latter.) This is Goddard’s directorial debut and, clearly, he’s born to the genre. Oddly enough, Goddard’s enjoyable and effective script for SF / horror hybrid Cloverfield (2008) lacked subtext; The Cabin in the Woods is all subtext.

With so many balls in the air, it would have been easy to skimp on the movie’s characters, but the acting in the movie is top notch. Only Whitford (The West Wing), Jenkins (Six Feet Under, The Visitor) and Hemsworth (Thor) are name actors, though Hemsworth made this way before Thor so he wasn't famous or as bulked up yet, but they don’t condescend to the material as often happens in horror movies with recognizable stars. (Watch also for a neat cameo appearance in the film.) I would peg The Cabin in the Woods as more clever than brilliant and still a B-movie at heart, but when it’s done as well as it is here that’s nothing to sneer at. In fact, it’s so entertainingly laid out, that akin to the miracle of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab creation, it’s also exhilarating. There’s still hope for the horror genre, after all.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and will be teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s, beginning on May 4, 2012.

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