Thursday, April 12, 2012

A horror film about horror films

Cabin in the Woods has received lots of early buzz, but its meta musings left this reviewer cold.

The Cabin In the Woods made quite a splash at last month's South by Southwest Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. The movie, which reportedly had been languishing unseen for more than two years before Lionsgate rescued it, seems to have been designed for auditoriums full of giddy fanboys who enjoy watching a director subvert a genre and then put pedal to the metal with an all-out-assault on Hollywood's attraction to effects-laden finales. If Cabin in the Woods can be seen with the right kind of audience, it might provide a contagious sort of fun.

This time, though, I find myself in disagreement with my film-geek friends. I responded to Cabin in the Woods without either fear or laughter, even as director Drew Goddard -- who wrote the movie Cloverfield -- knowingly played with all manner of horror cliches, the most prominent of them involving a stereotypical group of college students who head off to an isolated forest cabin for a weekend of fun.

Of course, we know trouble will follow. Our hapless students will soon encounter the expected horrors, but -- and here's the movie's gimmick -- we also learn that the environment in which these kids find themselves is being manipulated by cynical corporate types who operate out of a high-tech control room and make bets on what's likely to transpire.

Goddard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon, introduces us to a prototypically standard group of movie kids: a handsome jock (Chris Hemsworth), a slutty girl (Anna Hutchison) and a pot-smoking druggie (Fran Kranz). You don't need to know the rest of the characters because, by the very nature of Goddard's semi-playful enterprise, they're not really worth knowing. They're types that more often than not are fed into big-screen slaughter machines. Oh, all right, the other two kids are played by Jesse Williams and Kristen Connolly.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play the main techies in the control room. This cynical duo manipulates just about everything that happens in and around the cabin through some sort of unexplained machinations involving lots of electronics. Need a bit of libidinous stimulation? Release the pheromone mist.

It's impossible not to compare these two wise-cracking techies to movie directors who pull the levers that guide audiences through familiar funhouses of horror in which characters act stupidly (heading alone into darkened basements) or fight off relentless monsters (indefatigable redneck zombies).

Cabin in the Woods even boasts a far-fetched explanation for everything we've seen. I suppose we need this explanation because Cabin's major intrigue revolves around one question: Why are Jenkins and Whitford, as characters who appear to be working for a large company, carrying out this cruel scheme.

It's not possible to tell more without including a ton of spoilers. Know, though, that some viewers will regard the movie's finale as surprising and enjoyably preposterous.

I found it mostly preposterous without much amusement. Cabin in the Woods may have wanted to say something smart about horror movies that too often display a strained, synthetic quality and no real convictions. But what convictions does Cabin have? Here's the problem: If you spend a whole movie subverting a genre, you run the risk of being left with nothing to stand on but air.

This 'Cabin' is built from a certain kind of smart-alecky cleverness about movies and not much else.

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