Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods

Remember the opening scenes of Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead? In both movies, the characters drive on long, lonesome roads as ominous music plays, establishing a creepy atmosphere and indicating just how far off the beaten-track from civilizations these folks are when the shit hits the fan.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011), like the aforementioned titles, concerns a group of people trapped in an isolated house as ghouls pound on the doors and windows trying to get in, and like those titles, there is a sequence of our protagonists driving through a long, lonesome road as ominous music plays. But unlike those other movies, that's not our opening scene.

Our opening scene here is of two government bureaucrats in white shirts and ties (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) shooting the breeze while discussing preparations for some unnamed operation. Immediately, I'm paying attention. What kind of low-budget horror knockoff opens with a pair of recognizable characters actors in a scene that really doesn't seem to match the scenario the title promises?

Of course, The Cabin in the Woods is not just some low-budget horror knockoff. It's a clever, graphic, and highly entertaining sendup of low-budget horror knockoffs, the modern torture porn craze, slasher movies, and zombies movies that is frequently funny while also possessing a clever plot, a sense of mystery, and even some exciting action, surprises, and scares. I imagine this working strongly with both the horror crowd, who will laugh at the jokes and satire, and the mainstream crowd, who should laugh and jump. It's The Princess Bride of horror.

The initial plot is typical for the genre. A bunch of good-looking teens decide to spend the weekend alone in some isolated cabin when they find something in the basement that unleashes bloody-thirsty zombies that kill and dismember them one-by-one. The twist here this time is how the government (or some other unnamed organization with that kind of power) is coordinating the whole thing behind the scenes. They plant clues and little guideposts for the kids to stumble upon and manipulate their reactions. The cabin itself is bugged with microphones and cameras and even rigged to release chemicals to make the kids act the right way (like say, pheromones that will make the blonde girl act especially horny, so she and her boyfriend will wander off from the others).

Why they are doing this I'll leave for you to find out on your own, but what I appreciated about Cabin in the Woods is how it doesn't spell out everything right away or cheat the audience. In a way, it makes me think of what H.P. Lovecraft might have written if he were still alive today in the time of global conspiracies, the cynical corporation, and the Patriot Act. In its own way, it's rather creepy and at the same time awe-inspiring. The monster effects on the assorted zombies and ghouls is well done (though at times too much CGI is used), and there are plenty of nasty deaths along the way, especially at the end when all hell breaks loose (without spoiling too much, there's a great "Oh, shit!"moment involving several elevator doors that open simultaneously).

The humor in The Cabin in the Woods comes from how the narrative plays with the conventions of the genre and its stereotypes. Most slashers have the stock characters - the alpha male, the stoner, the bimbo, the virgin, etc. - but here, the teens start as fairly likeable and thoughtful, and it's only through outside manipulation that they unknowingly fill their assigned roles.

More laughs are provided by the both the cynicism and desperation of the behind-the-scenes technicians and operators who conspire to trap the teens. Early on, they have an office pool for what threat or monster the kids will be facing, and Whitford laments when a merman is not selected (be careful what you wish for in these movies). Characters continuously find the tables being turned on them, and you never know what to expect.

Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who directs), The Cabin in the Woods is in some ways a compatible piece to Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Both play with the conventions of the horror genre by pulling back the curtain to illustrate why the characters behave the way they do and the scenarios play out as they do, and by the end, both reveal themselves as effective, modern genre films in their own right. Once the wind has been taken out of the sales of convention, the audience doesn't know what to expect, and that's when they're susceptible to a good fright flick.

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