Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods / ***½ (R)

Dana: Kristin Connolly
Curt: Chris Hemsworth
Jules: Anna Hutchison
Marty: Fran Kranz
Holden: Jesse Williams
Sitterson: Richard Jenkins
Hadley: Bradley Whitford
Truman: Brian White
Lin: Amy Acker

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Drew Goddard. Written by Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard. Running time: 95 min. Rated R (for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity).

When you watch a horror movie, do you sit there ticking off all the conventions of the genre? Do you say, “Oh, she’s definitely going to die first!”? Or do you ask yourself just why is the last gas station on the way to the group’s remote destination so scary looking, and why does the operator always look like some inbred rapist? Or do you wonder if it really matters whether that cabin in the woods is haunted by ghosts or attacked by zombies? Because the results are always going to be the same, right? And, why are the victims always young college or high school students? Well, the new horror gore fest “The Cabin in the Woods” is not only one of those movies where you can bring your check list to mark off each element as it comes along in the pre-ordained order, it also does us the courtesy to explain why its situations are so predictable. In doing so, it becomes one of the more original horror flicks to come along in a while.

Now, someone just walking in expecting to see a bunch dumb kids cavorting off to the woods to be killed might become confused by the movie’s opening sequence. Instead of opening on a sunny day dawning on campus with a high flying crane shot showing us all of the beautiful people whose parents have been able to afford higher education for their kids we meet Sitterson and Hadley, two apparent office workers making small talk in the break room. These two people are brilliantly cast with veteran character actors Richard Jenkins (“Let Me In”) and Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”). They aren’t the beautiful people. They’re oh so ordinary. They look like they belong in an office. They talk like it too, but they’re the guys you want to be friends with in the office. They’re funny and they make the doldrums of the daily grind bearable. It’s important that you like these guys. I wouldn’t deign to tell you why, though. That’s something that must be kept secret.

Despite this rather unusual beginning, first time director Drew Goddard makes it very clear that you are in the right movie by flashing the title of the movie across the screen in a rather jarring manner, with large blood red letters and a traditional discordant music cue. Now, we get the swooping crane shot in through the open windows of an apartment where a girl walks around in her underwear oblivious to her exposure. This is Dana (Kristen Connolly), the “virginal” heroine. Check. Soon the exposition begins when her “looser” friend Jules (Anna Hutchison, “Power Rangers Jungle Fury”) arrives sporting a new blonde dye job. Check. Her boyfriend, Curt (Chris Hemsworth, “Thor”), is the jocular jock. Check. And, they’re conspiring to set Dana up with his nerdier (not really) friend, Holden (Jesse Williams, “Grey’s Anatomy”). Check and check. But, one of their parties is late. At the last minute, with bong in hand, Marty (Fran Kranz, “Dollhouse”) shows up to add color, conspiracy theories, and comic relief. Check, check, and check.

If I synopsized the parts of the movie that wouldn’t act as spoilers, it would just continue the checklist of horror movie clichés, mostly within the dead teenager/slasher flick subgenre. What is so great about this movie is how it uses those clichés to build on its own unique and quite ingenious mythology. In doing so, it makes indirect references to dozens of other horror movies. If you’re really paying attention you’ll catch references to the “Hellraiser” films, “The Strangers”, “The Evil Dead”, “The Wolfman”, and many others that will probably continue to reveal themselves over multiple viewings. The screenplay by Goddard and his producer Joss Whedon is at once a bit of a spoof of the horror genre and reverential homage to everything horror.

Whedon—the man responsible for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”— has made a career out of exorcising the horror and sci-fi genres into the state of the mundane. He does so with a good helping of humor. “Buffy” placed the vampire mythos into a suburban high school setting where the vampires weren’t nearly as worrisome as what to wear to the prom. “Dollhouse” turned incredible advanced and manipulative technology into a corporate venture where people could be rented to literally do whatever the client wanted. Now, he does his office work on the entire horror genre. The results are clever, a little bit shocking, and somehow make such industrialized sense in the end.

This is one of those reviews where it just kills me not to be able to write more about what makes this movie so enjoyable. To do so would be to steal some of the pleasure of letting it unfold fresh for the audience. Suffice it to say that “The Cabin in the Woods” isn’t your typical cabin in the woods horror flick. It is that, but there is so much more. And, I’m going to have to just stop myself now to avoid saying too much.

TRAILER SPOILER WARNING! Some people think the trailer reveals too much about the film's plot. It doesn't reveal the why of it all, but it does reveal elements I do not in my review. Watch at your own risk.

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