THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz
screenplay by Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard
directed by Drew Goddard
starring Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Vincent Regan, Peter Stormare
screenplay by Stephen Saint Leger, James Mather & Luc Besson
directed by Saint & Mather
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Drew Goddard's (and Joss Whedon's, you won't be able to forget) unfortunate giant middle finger The Cabin in the Woods takes a shit-eating high-concept only to do nothing interesting with it for about 80 of its 100 minutes. Because the high-concept is the crux of the film and the elbow of the argument, as they say, stop right here if you want to stay a spoiler virgin. For me, I went in not knowing anything about the movie--didn't even see the trailer--on the back of assurances from many respected friends and colleagues that this was, in fact, a must-see for the genre fan. What I should have asked was, "What genre?" The Cabin in the Woods is Scream for what Joe Bob Briggs used to call "Spam in a cabin" flicks, in which a group of nubile youngsters piles into an unreliable junker to spend a fateful weekend in some backwoods hick oasis where they're picked off, one by one, by some combination of demons and Ted Nugent. The difference being that Scream was cold, nihilistic, scary as hell, and a lovely example of the thing it was simultaneously deconstructing. The reason The Cabin in the Woods is neither revolutionary nor "ground-breaking" is that everything it does has already been done, repeatedly and better, and that rather than serving as a sterling example of that which it is trying to pinion (thus establishing its credibility as satire, see?), it's really just another instalment in the live-action Scooby-Doo franchise.
Whedon-ites, I'm certain, are sharpening their knives at this point. For as much as I liked "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", I mainly like it because about a dozen episodes are all-time masterpieces of the kind that forgives the 92% of the series that's embarrassing, self-satisfied garbage. The Cabin in the Woods is basically a flabby, out of shape episode of "Buffy"--one that takes place in that season where Buffy's boring boyfriend (no, no, the other one) is revealed to work for a secret organization that collects and examines species of mythological bogey. Whedon's weird obsession with the alleged hipster cool of Scooby-Doo (Buffy's pals referred to themselves as the Scooby Gang) gets the feature-length treatment here as our nubile victims pile into a mystery van and go deep into the woods to spend the weekend in an exact replica of the Evil Dead house. There's the Fred (Chris Hemsworth), the Velma (Kristen Connolly), the Daphne (Anna Hutchison), and the Shaggy (Fran Kranz), thus making poor, sweet, stupid Holden (Jesse Williams) Scooby. Remember that the only reason "Scooby-Doo" is ever mentioned is for its drug subtext, and that most people begin to regard it as kitsch bullshit around the age of twelve, because no matter how awesome the monster looks in the beginning, by the end it's always revealed to be some asshole in a suit. Not to get too technical, but in the vernacular of child development, that's called the "fucking horseshit" stage. The only saving grace of which is that those of us raised on it through years of bludgeoning syndication and no other after-school viewing options usually figured out that Scooby-Doo was fucking horseshit long before puberty.
The Cabin in the Woods hasn't hit puberty, and it suggests that the audience for Spam in a Cabin flicks hasn't, either--an idea not only partially debunked by Carol Clover in her Men, Women, and Chain Saws, but one that clarifies this idea that The Cabin in the Woods is an example of what happens when bullies make a movie about something geeks love. It's the cool kids, the Heathers, putting together the neighbourhood haunted house. Can you picture it? It's scary because it's intimidating, not because it understands fear; these asshats have never been afraid of anything in their lives. It's thick with references to the surface of horror films, and the instant a lonely Cenobite knock-off appears in a Lucite jail (what is it, Magneto?) for the close examination of bloodied but unbowed Velma, the movie should lose the faithful for good.* Where's the knock-off Freddy? The Jason? Leatherface? Michael Myers? I'm sure they're there somewhere on the cutting-room floor, right next to desist letters from lawyers more on the ball. It doesn't show any love for the horror menagerie it puts on display, in other words; imagine what this film would be like had Rob Zombie directed it, or Ti West, or, hell, Pascal Laugier, or Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. It just puts monsters on display like zoo animals, then mostly looks away when it's time to turn them loose in either a sad (and failed) attempt to win a PG-13 rating or more likely an attempt to pander to every audience except the horror audience that would see right through it, and instantly, as another slam on genre films by a larded gentry too delicate to see them first. I was asked by a student recently why No Country For Old Men made him feel shitty. The question is, why shouldn't a movie about the remorseless scythe of death and chaos make one feel shitty? The question, as it applies to The Cabin in the Woods, is why a movie about the end of the world makes you feel GREAT.
The Scoobies arrive at their abattoir and promptly get naked enough to swim in the lake while, far beneath them in a secret underground bunker, pocket-shirts Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) push levers, pull switches, and reveal that the whole movie is about the manipulation of an annual blood ritual sacrifice meant to appease Ancient Gods living in the abyss. A little Lovecraft, a little Hunger Games; why not? It seems the rules of Spam in a Cabin as described by people who haven't thought very long about this are the same as the Slasher rules set forth by Scream--that there's a Jock, a Fool, a Slut, and a Virgin (and a pet) in these movies and they need to be sacrificed, in order, so the rest of us can continue doing whatever it is the rest of us do. There's a scene in which our heroes are lured into a cellar full of vaguely-demonic knick-knacks where they, cleverly, get to choose how they're going to be dispatched. (Hadley moans, "Why is it never the Merman? I just want to see a Merman." Maybe because it's a big fucking disappointment.) I don't really remember all of these types in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or the first two Evil Deads but my memory's not very good. I actually think the secret joke of the very jokey The Cabin in the Woods is that the blood ritual revolves around the sacrifice of each member of the Scooby gang except Willow. I mean, Velma. Anyway, brainiac Velma reads a diary and, having never seen The Evil Dead, I guess, yuk yuk, reads a few Latin passages out loud and promptly awakens a zombie family of what the film itself describes as "backwards pain-worshipping idiots."
Joe Bob would appreciate the boobs on Hutchison--who wouldn't?--but what I appreciated was that there seemed to be a real understanding that Daphne had to show her tits to gratify the primal urge that horror films satisfy. I also liked the suggestion, albeit fleeting, that while Sitterson and Hadley and all their middlebrow clock-punchers celebrate another successful reaping, Velma gets violently, nihilistically butchered on a video screen in the background. But it doesn't go down like that: Shaggy gets wise, descends on the secret underground bunker with Velma, and in the last promising moment of the film, unleashes all the captive beasts on their erstwhile handlers. The rest of The Cabin in the Woods is uneven and sloppy (what's with the metal scorpion and the digital snake?). It's interesting that they dope the teens so they more closely adhere to the dumb jock/slutty blonde archetypes the film insists are the hallmarks of the genre--much less so that a shot of gas to the jock's face convinces him that splitting up into groups is a smarter idea than sticking together. What sort of gas does that? The film doesn't care (neither do its fans), but wasn't there a better way out of the puzzle besides...that? Especially in a movie all about being clever--unless the fact that it's so stupid that only a backwards idiot would accept it at face value is its clever poke. At you. At us.
Co-writer and director Drew Goddard wrote Cloverfield, which I adored, in addition to several episodes of "Lost", which suffers from the same brand of dense over-writing/under-thinking that afflicts The Cabin in the Woods. It has nothing to say about its topic, offers no solutions to its configurations, and, because it's not wise, when it picks its subject apart, it doesn't do so like a surgeon--it does it like a harp seal. It's possible to be funny and make a horror film that deconstructs itself--I'm thinking not of The Monster Squad, probably The Cabin in the Woods' closest spiritual analogue (and even as I say that, I feel bad--while Fred Dekker is an idiot, he's our idiot), but of genuine genre masterpieces like John Landis's An American Werewolf in London, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead. What The Cabin in the Woods is is the Tucker & Dale version of Shrek, where creaky pop-culture allusions are the height of wit. An early reference to that marijuana commercial where the kid screams that he learned how to toke the sticky-icky from "You dad! I learned if from you!" highlights the mentality of the thing: That's not a joke anyone under the age of 35 will understand in the slightest (indeed, the packed opening-night crowd was dead silent before it), nor is it a joke for the intended audience of this piece of crap (it's the Soupy Sales bit from Juno, right?). It's a joke for the filmmakers and their buddies and the "Firefly" fanclub--a big, wet circle-jerk. The Cabin in the Woods will get you off, is what I'm saying, but only if you're into that sort of thing.
I know I win no fans by saying that compared to The Cabin in the Woods, at least James Mather and Stephen St. Leger's Lockout means what it says. Its cast is exceptional to a man (Maggie Grace is awful, of course, and provides unpleasant flashbacks to "Lost"); its premise is stupid and uneven, but enough for what the film wants to do; its dialogue is excrescent but delivered with brio; and if, at the end of the day, there's no defending it as great art, at least it's not a bastard about being Outland + Escape From New York. In fact, if the flick had managed to harness the invention and insouciance of its prologue and Earth-set passage, it might have been pretty great. As it stands, there's that worth-the-admission first half, wherein ex-CIA agent Snow (Pearce) is interrogated about the death of a colleague and a briefcase that goes missing before being sentenced to thirty years in suspended animation (Minority Report) on an orbiting prison station. First Daughter Emilie (Grace) visits to ensure the extended sleep isn't driving the inmates crazy, and, of course, terrible things happen during her interrogation of the freshly-thawed Hydell (Joseph Gilgun, like a Colin Farrell without whatever minimal socialization Farrell had), resulting in the takeover of the prison satellite by a bunch of super-max felons (Con Air). Blah-de-blah and Snow is deposited in the hi-tech facility, the lone, hidden, avenging, wise-cracking po-po (Die Hard) hoping to liberate a girl hostage before the baddies learn her identity (Die Hard). Oh, I've also seen Jean Claude Van Damme's Death Warrant. What do I win?
Lockout has the always-satisfying moment where one loony releases the other loonies to the dismay of the bulls, and the moment where initial hatred turns to admiration turns to love between the rapscallion GUY and his Stockholm'd ward. In between, there's a stupid thing involving a code delivered by an autistic guy (Mercury Rising) that smells a little like first-time screenwriter(s)-itis, as well as a gaggle of story twists that are completely uninteresting except that they're played out by Pearce, Peter Stormare, Lennie James, and Vincent Regan. Never unaffected, never underplayed (the biggest surprise of the film, aside from its avoidance of a direct-to-video fate, is that Diablo Cody didn't write it), with all the good violence off-screen and the inevitable rape of Emilie somehow never materializing (ditto nudity), Lockout still manages not to be a complete disaster. That's because, very simply, it betrays not one moment of awareness that it's soul-crushingly derivative, instead playing it straight, having no conception that it owes its existence to pedigree (Luc Besson produced and put his imprimatur on it) and extreme familiarity. It's the movie version of Kevin Costner--the great, big dimwit you like anyway because, gosh, what do you mean this is the same movie as about a hundred other movies? It's a space prison.
*Honestly, though, when the film brings up Clive Barker, I was reminded of a great little short story by him called "Hell's Event," which has a very similar vibe to what The Cabin in the Woods wants to achieve. Also, "Midnight Meat Train." Oh, and "Book of Blood." I hope he got royalties. return