Everything You Think This Movie Is; It Isn’t and Thank God For That!
A Film Review of The Cabin in the Woods
By: Lawrence Napoli
Where the hell has Joss Whedon been since his glory days of Buffy and Firefly? Whatever he’s been doing, he’s also been soaking in a hot tub of liquefied creativity. If the audience can take The Cabin in the Woods as ANY indicator as to the quality of The Avengers, rest assured that the inevitable excitement and satisfaction will cause some in the audience to spontaneously combust on May 4th. Until then, I cannot help but unequivocally demand anyone reading this right now to see this film at your earliest convenience. Everything you know about horror, sci-fi and fantasy gets flipped on its head and delivered in a manner you never saw coming. Remember what the boys did to that printer in Office Space (1999)? Joss Whedon did that to “the formula” of Hollywood filmmakin,g and when he was done eviscerating it — he gave it the finger as he jumped on his magical stead made of lightning-fire and flew off to conquer the next galaxy adjacent to The Milky Way. Ok, so I over exaggerated a tad on that last comment, but my desire for originality, creativity and quality from Hollywood has left me drowning in the limitless depths of its abysmal mediocrity that only the few gems produced by Christopher Nolan have been able to hold me over with life inspiring essence. All right, I over exaggerated on that one too, but the point is that everyone will see the trailers for The Cabin in the Woods and expect the same old slasher drivel. After seeing this film, many may try to classify it, but it certainly is NOT the same old anything.
Let’s get the least spectacular part of the review out of the way by discussing the performances. Did anyone else know that Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth was leading this cast of unknowns into the seldom tread waters of Hollywood innovation? I sure didn’t, and when I saw his name flash up on the marquee, I knew something way different was about to transpire. Hemsworth doesn’t come close to reinventing the wheel with his acting, but that’s a very conscious thought process at work because this film is constantly setting the audience up. Hemsworth, along with costars Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz are all playing very specific teen stereotypes in order to lure the audience down the path of common expectations. Every performance from each protagonist stays within said expectations all the way to the end of the film even when circumstances would justify a stark departure. The same can be said of the rest of the supporting cast consisting of Richard Jenkins (The Rum Diary), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Brian White (Stomp the Yard) and Amy Acker (various Whedon TV shows); none of whom seem to belong in some run of the mill horror film. Everyone plays their part in a leveled fashion one would expect from the environments each character populates. It is the fact that these different worlds coalesce into the same which makes every performance satisfactory because in a fictional world where the rule book was left in Charlie Sheen’s respectable attire closet, any actor would be compelled to break character and do whatever the heck they wanted.
Selling this world to an audience requires the kind of effects and imagery that work hard to maintain authenticity while pushing the audience’s limits for absurdity. As such, the use of extensive CG visuals is rationed quite well until the last third of the film’s duration in order to deflect as much attention from the reality bending aspects of the story as possible. As much as I loved the look and feel of the “force field” effect, I questioned if it was necessary for the audience to see this as early as we did presuming that keeping plot elements as cryptic as possible was, in fact, the order of the day. Thankfully, this served a specific purpose near the film’s end, and not simply because there was an unforeseen surplus in the budget that needed to be spent. The core of this film’s effects remain anchored to the realm of practical horror tricks which means plenty of masks to be gored, prosthetics to be punctured and fake blood to be spread. What causes practical effects to come off as “too fake” for the audience is if the script and tone of the film calls for violence that is over the top. That means no geyser bursting slashed veins or arteries. The audience will be spared the disgusting shock value of Hostel which is, again, all about making the audience buy into this film being another Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. Much effort was made into making this duck look, sound and feel like a duck.
But what’s going to blow your mind is that it isn’t even a duck. It’s not even an animal, mineral or vegetable. What you see is and isn’t what you get in so many ways that will not become clear until that one moment during this film where the curtain is lifted on the reality of this fictional world. It had me dropping my jaw, laughing out loud, forming a question mark above my head and simply being awe-stricken by the randomness that was unleashed at said point which continued to stampede until the final credits rolled. To co-writers Joss Whedon and (director) Drew Goddard: I salute you both for proving that everything hasn’t been thought of in Hollywood land, and showing that more effort made in writing distinguishes the trailblazers from the canon-fodder. This isn’t the kind of story that will only require attentiveness to register, but it will also require a small leap of faith to allow it to make sense. I have praised this film for its ability to setup the audience for an eventual brain explosion, but that doesn’t extend to the plot’s details into explaining why every character is where they are, does what they do and behaves the way they behave. Therein lies said faith leaping. Being more forthcoming in the script (even with well written dialogue discovery as opposed to blatant exposition scenes) would ruin the twist and lessen the impact of the climax. As with “big reveal” films, the surprise makes everything that was seen and heard appreciated at a completely different level, thus protecting that surprise until the opportune moment is paramount. I felt that the culmination of this story was inspired (in some way) by James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) because Whedon truly begs, borrows and steals from so many aspects of horror, sci-fi and fantasy. It is because no one thought of the common links among these worlds in the manner as presented in The Cabin in the Woods which demands respect from the viewer. There is no question that the audience will find familiarity with this story, but only to a point. At that point, the concept of perspective allows the action onscreen to evoke thought and adrenaline to surge surprise and satisfaction in the viewer.
The best part about this film is that hidden away beneath the effects, the circumstances, the twists and the turns lays a very unique social commentary in regards to humanity’s conceptualization of good versus evil. It is an idea that leads an individual to question humanity’s existence in the first place. Are we here because it’s good or are we here to placate evil? People of faith, those without it and those simply convinced of life never extending beyond that which can be seen, felt and heard all have unique perspectives on this issue. The Cabin in the Woods takes a very risky (and grim) interpretation of existence by presenting a what-if scenario that would cause even the most level-headed bloke to say “WTF?!?” Seeing this movie did not inspire me devote myself to anarchy and go on a killing spree, but it did make me think about the decisions that make me who I am, and if that sense of self would maintain amidst the warmth of serenity, the horror of evil or the desolation of the void.
The number one reason why the next film you see should is The Cabin in the Woods is because it is oh so very different and “different” in movies can evoke emotions on par with “great filmmaking.” I am not expecting $3 billion dollars in global ticket sales or multiple Academy Award nominations because it simply is not that kind of film. But it sure as heck will make a splash! This movie’s rebellious nature makes it stand out, and the fact that it was released prior to the summer blockbuster rush - and not during the horror season of October/November - is extremely appropriate because it is so much more than a horror or a thriller. I haven’t seen anything quite like this before, and it made me feel refreshed as I walked out of the movie theatre. There is a whole new world of fiction out there, waiting to be discovered. All we need is for those who control the means of production to have greater confidence in taking the kind of risks to deliver that which is truly new and not regurgitated mish mash.