Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

To commemorate the release of the remake of The Evil Dead this Friday, I am making this week Evil Dead Week. I will watch and review all three Evil Dead films before seeing the remake and providing my thoughts on it.

However, first I'm going to review a film that is not part of the Evil Dead series, but uses its basic "teens go camping, bad things happen" plot to very creative effect. So without further ado...

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

NOTE: If you have not seen this movie yet and wish to get the full experience, stop reading this review right now and watch this movie. Then come back and read my review. You won't regret it.

Now then...

Are you sick of the same old, same old in the movies you go see? Even if you're the kind of person who only sees a movie every other week, you typically start noticing genre cliches not long after you get old enough to go out to the movies on your own. The independent female lead in that romantic comedy is going to give up her job and settle down with that hunky guy by the end. The underdog sports team is going to triumph over their elitist, big-money rivals. The terrorists will be brought to justice by Mr. Action Hero. The final girl is going to watch all of her friends die before she finally defeats the monster.

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard were getting bored with that last one in particular. But rather than make a dark horror film where she dies in the end and the monster wins, they did something else entirely. Without spoiling anything, The Cabin in the Woods is a stinging critique of both overused genre conventions and tropes (in this case, those of the horror genre) and of moviegoers who demand familiarity rather than anything that goes outside the box and confounds their expectations. You'll have trouble watching a great many "straight" horror movies after seeing how this one picks them apart. And it is simultaneously a rollicking good horror-comedy in its own right, packed with gruesome sight gags, huge laughs, great homages and shout-outs to classic horror films, and one of the most balls-out wicked awesome third acts I have ever seen.

The "A" plot is simple enough. Five college friends -- Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams), Jules (Anna Hutchison), and Marty (Fran Kranz) -- go out to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of sex, booze, weed, and partying. They accidentally raise from the dead a family of pain-worshipping redneck zombies who set out to kill them one by one. It's the plot of The Evil Dead and countless other "don't go in the woods" horror films rolled into one. So far, it sounds simple. But then there's the "B" plot. This part here isn't much of a spoiler, given that it's revealed in the first minute and on the back of the DVD case, but for some reason many reviewers treated it like one. Since it's been about a year since this movie came out, I think it's okay to spoil. A group of scientists and engineers, called the Controllers, have set up these kids' ill-fated campout, guiding them to behave like stock horror movie characters -- Curt the boorish jock, Holden the nerdy guy, Jules the dumb slutty girl, Marty the joker, and lastly, Dana the virginal final girl. What is their purpose? Well, that part is a very big spoiler.

And unfortunately, so is the reason why this movie is so awesome. All I can say is that the two plots converge in the third act, and barring the leap in logic of having a big red button that does that, it is perhaps the ultimate horror movie extravaganza. Whedon and Goddard not only manage to cram into that scene an ocean of references that will have even a casual horror fan smiling with delight, but they wrap it all up in a truly ballsy manner that dares to call out its own audience.

That is where The Cabin in the Woods truly shines. Whedon and Goddard have made not just a great horror movie, but a movie that explores the horror genre and its fandom in a way that makes Scream, once the standard bearer for such, look bush league. Hadley, one of the Controllers, longs to see a new scenario play out, wishes that he'd one day get a scenario involving the merman that he's been longing to see throughout his career. But the forces that dictate the rules of these experiments are beyond his control, so he has to settle for the reliable "backwoods redneck torture family". The Controllers are filmmakers like Whedon and Goddard, sick of making cookie-cutter, formulaic, mass-market pap but knowing that they have to make it anyway because the studio thinks that's what will play in Peoria, and they're probably right.

But even aside from any deeper meaning, The Cabin in the Woods is an excellent movie. The "A" plot involving the teens in the cabin has been done to death, but it is still done quite effectively here, perhaps inadvertently answering Whedon and Goddard's question of why we keep seeing these movies. The doomed friends are all blessed with good actors; Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz do most of the heavy lifting, especially towards the end, but I wouldn't mind seeing any of these guys again at the multiplex. (And one of them, Chris Hemsworth, is now a bona fide A-lister -- and got to work with Whedon again on The Avengers.) Then you get the scenes in the control room, which showcase Whedon's talent for witty dialogue and making seemingly low-brow "genre" material engaging and funny. Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and Whedon regular Amy Acker lead a team that has turned mass murder into a dull desk job, with betting pools on the outcome of the carnage, the team leader hurling obscenities at the Japanese branch, and buddies talking about taking a day off to do some DIY home improvement projects in between kills. Lastly, like I mentioned before, the third act takes the creativity of the writing and storyline and matches it with creativity in special effects. I cannot describe what happens there not just because of spoilers, but because a mere description wouldn't do it justice. Let's just say, if you want to see all the horror movies in the span of twenty minutes, you're in luck.

Score: 5 out of 5

This was a fairly tough film to review, given that explaining the biggest reason why I liked it would constitute a massive spoiler, but I think I did it justice. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have proudly flipped the bird at convention and formula, while simultaneously possessing the chops to make a great movie that stands on its own two feet. The Cabin in the Woods is scary, funny, and awesome. See it.

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