Friday, 6 April 2012
FILM REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods
It's best to go into this film knowing completely nothing. Aside from the trailer, the marketing campaign for The Cabin in the Woods has been spot on: showing a twisting turning Rubix cube cabin with the teasing tagline: "you think you know the story." This isn't a straight up horror as Whedonites will know from countless Buffy, Firefly and Dollhouse watchings - director Joss Whedon likes to play around with genres, and even more than that, he likes playing around with the mechanics of those genres - subverting and reinventing and surprising, all with his signature wit, humour and copious in-jokes. Filmed in 2009, fans have been clamouring to see The Cabin in the Woods which has been in distribution hell with financially strapped MGM, so it's only now getting a well deserved release. Thor wasn't even Thor back then...
SPOILERS AHEAD, THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!
You know the premise already: five good looking college kids get away for the weekend by going to stay in a cabin in the woods, and horrible things start happening. Except you don't know the premise already: these college kids have been set up by an unknown organisation whose job it is to - in entertaining horror movie game fashion - sacrifice these kids as a ritual to the Ancient Gods who live beneath the Earth's surface, and are on the brink of rising and destroying the world. So, it's like The Hunger Games but with an actual point.
I LOVED the opening credits - my favourite title sequence since American Horror Story, and in a film for a very long time. Loved the casual buggy ride exploding into giant 70s horror red letters - one of just many many nods to films such as The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, and Friday the 13th.
Another thing to love was how from the very beginning we know these kids are being set up. I liked this a lot, as I had assumed it would form part of the twist much later when they realise the cabin isn't real and they're being manipulated. The also gives the plot a juicy and beautifully worked split-screen comic effect, where we can follow the kids and their innocent swimming, dancing, flirting, smoking, drinking, sexing, and then also follow the, as I like to call them, "dungeon masters" rigging the cabin, taking bets on the players and the monsters, and manipulating situations to put on the best show for the audience. I hark back to my Woman in Black review: would you seriously go into this place on the intent of staying there?
Fabulous casting all round (it's great when Whedon gets to choose who he works with) but the talent in the laboratory controlling the cabin just edge it. The utterly lovely Amy Acker (in a white coat, again) plays cute and concerned, yet still very much involved in the games of it all : putting a last minute resigned sneaky bet on which monsters will terrorise the kids this time around, which leads to one of the best scenes in the whole film: the monster scoreboard (see how many you can read!). And the two masterminds of it all, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, are just sublime together - like two bickering security guards who have worked together for far too long and humour each other to a tee.
Because this is a riff on the "good looking college kids go to stay in a remote cabin in the woods and really horrible things happen to them" plot, the film has to play up to the well-defined stereotypes, "the rules" - therefore the characters - the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool and the virgin - are cliches, but Whedon still manages to excel at this and make them interesting. What helps a great deal is they all have that sense of humour, the comic timing that is so reminiscent of a Xander, or a Jayne. Aside from Fran Kranz, the college kids cast are all newbies for Joss Whedon, and - apart from Chris Hemsworth, whose Nordic hammer was just a twinkle in his eye back when they were shooting - pretty much unknown which makes their sparky and instantly likeable presences on the screen even more impressive. Kristen Connolly is a smart breakout, playing the virgin Dana "whose death is optional" and who is our heroine throughout the story (would have been nice for Whedon to use a different dynamic here, but there is reasoning to every decision he makes). But it's Fran Kranz everyone will remember and quote, going from a annoyingsome nerd as Topher in Dollhouse to fully fledged funny guy-slash-accidental hero here. He lights up the screen whenever he's on it, and is killed off far too early (leading to a chorus of "owwwwww's") before Whedon tricks us all, and brings him back from the dead to a dizzingly brilliant final 30 minutes (cue chorus of "huzzah's!").
The pace and invention never let up, meaning the whole thing just zips by like the best ghost train ride you've been on in your life. Too much goodness that will have to be rattled off in a long list: redneck on speaker phone, the "choosing" in the basement, the drugging mists, Curt's heroic gesture only to be slammed into the forcefield wall, the celebration scene in the lab whilst the show plays on in the background, the reveal of the monster compounds... which leads me to the highlight of the whole film: MONSTERS VS MONSTERS. There's a split second pause when all the doors to the compounds are unlocked which is milked so sweetly before there's utter carnage and bloods, guts and limbs flying everywhere. It's like Buffy Series 4 was all meant for something. Everyone gets a horrible death, even the protagonists, and there's a brilliant punch line to the recurring merman joke which will leave you with the biggest grin on your face. And in addition, the most bad-ass unicorn you will encounter in your life, ever. Thought they were cute, did you? Mwahahaha!
The climax is mighty, but leaves you slightly chewing for more. Is this set in the future? How did it all come about? Is this game an annual event that happens every year, and this is the first time it's failed (so spectacularly)? Is this broadcast on television? Are there Ancient Gods in every country that need to be suppressed with rituals? Who the hell was Sigourney Weaver and did she just live down there in the rocks? It's not unsatisfying, but leaves you wanting to know more about the history and the wider world outside of this context, which is only a compliment to Joss Whedon. Absolutely loved the recording of other similar ritual sacrifice games in other countries and the undisguised rivalry with Japan and their schoolgirls being terrorised by a creepy dead ghost girl: a wonderful riff on J-Horror, and Richard Jenkins' "FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU" to the smiling pupils who manage to entrap the evil ghost into the body of a smiling frog (!) is just glorious.
Certifiably bonkers but effortlessly funny and clever with it, The Cabin in the Woods hasn't strived to re-boot the sassy horror franchise ala Scream (if there's a sequel it will be a straight to DVD mess separate of Joss Whedon) but as a standalone walloping joyride more along the lines of the equally fine if less inspired Tucker and Dale vs Evil. A delight for Whedonites and as much fun if you're new to the man as well - I could quite happily watch it again this instant. Go at night, eat lots of popcorn and love it, love it, love it.