How do you come up with a novel twist on the tried-and-tested-to-death slasher-horror formula?
How do you come up with a novel twist on the tried-and-tested-to-death slasher-horror formula? Wes Craven’s Scream movies did a pretty good job, but even their satirical in-joke commentary on slasher clichés itself grew tired in the end. Well, it’s no surprise really that it would fall upon fan-favourite writer/director Joss Whedon to attempt a reinvention of the tired sub-genre. The surprise is that nobody trusted that he could pull it off.
Despite Whedon’s writing duties on this project, and the presence of none other than Thor himself – Chris Hemsworth – in a lead role, The Cabin in the Woods would find itself unceremoniously buried alive for almost three years before being released on an unassuming public, and with almost no promotion whatsoever. Disappearing again without a trace it’s actually only the positive word of mouth that it’s had which has done this film any kind of justice, with most people assuming that it was just released to cash in on Whedon’s record-breaking Avengers success and Hemsworth’s post-Thor, post-Avengers popularity. Although there were other factors – the studio filed for bankruptcy in the intervening period – it’s fair to say that the cashing-in-on-Avengers plan was part of the reason why the studios delayed the movie’s release. The Cabin in the Woods undeniably deserved better.
The story revolves around a group of college friends who all go off on holiday to – you guessed it – a cabin in the woods. It’s not long before strange things start happening to them, however, as the fun of flirting, playing drunken games of truth or dare, and frolicking around the woods for a ‘private’ party soon dissipates, with trouble crawling right out of the mist. Yet there’s something different here – someone’s watching these people on video monitors in a giant office. Someone’s playing them.
One of the cleverest reimaginings of the standard slasher movie, The Cabin in the Woods is a superb little gem which, like all the best revisionist efforts, manages to both offer up a fresh take on stale ingredients whilst also being respectful towards everything that made the genre classics so loved in the first place. Undoubtedly Whedon’s script makes a huge difference when it comes to this ‘fresh’ take on proceedings – his trademark dialogue is just as subtle, sharp, snappy, witty and pop-culture relevant as it has ever been – but it’s not just the dialogue which ignites this flick, it’s also the clever hook upon which they hang the story.
Since there will be many who have not even heard of – let alone seen – this movie, I would strongly recommend that, if you are one of those people, you drop this review and go and pick up the movie immediately. Rent it or even just blind buy it; few will be disappointed by this engaging little effort. And to those who are still dubious because they aren’t immediately drawn to the horror genre – like myself – I would argue that this movie is far cleverer than that; transcending standard genre restrictions to become more than a mere horror flick; offering a satirical look at horror extremes like torture porn, and graduating to be a truly worthy watch in its own right. Trust Joss Whedon and give this film a chance.
Still reading? Still not persuaded? Or just got back from watching it? Either way, let’s have a lot at some more specifics and attempt – without any spoilers – to get to the heart of what makes this gem shine.
The concept – and it’s not a spoiler as it’s largely revealed within just the first few minutes – is that the fate of this particular group of twenty-something students has been pre-determined by some kind of clandestine government and/or military organisation that conducts these ‘experiments’ across the globe. Rather than this just being a simply conspiracy ‘twist’, however, the involvement of this group is far more complicated and considerably more hands-on, and it is so well integrated into the story – and the plight of the characters – that it actually both justifies and offers depth into their actions; actions which would otherwise amount to little more than clichéd horror genre antics, but which here fit perfectly into a far grander plan.
Think about the stereotypes that classic slasher victims tend to fit into. The dumb jock; the hapless ‘easy’ blonde; the nerdy bookworm; the comic relief –even the virgin – The Cabin in the Woods finds a way to fit all of these clichés in, even though the characters we get to know start off very differently, and are built up in such a way that you actually care for their plight. They don’t always want to behave the way you would expect them to: somebody is clearly pulling their strings.
The twists and turns along the way are also unexpected. Whedon’s script – co-written and directed here by Cloverfield co-writer Drew Goddard (one of the writers who jumped ship on Lost before Lindelhof sunk it) – manages to ratchet up the tension in the most innocuous scenes. A girl making out with a stuffed wolf’s head; a one-way mirror in a bedroom; leafing through old trinkets in a basement – Goddard manages to stretch them out just that little bit longer than you would expect; dwelling on the moment, holding the frame, and tapping into your healthy horror paranoia. Instincts will not help you here though, as the Whedon/Goddard duo have clearly set out to craft a horror movie which defies convention, which pokes fun at all the extreme ideas that have ruined the sub-genre, and celebrates all the elements that once made it so great.
At once witty and sharp; tense and gory; respectful and self-depreciating, The Cabin in the Woods blends comedy and commentary into a slasher film almost as well as Shaun of the Dead blended romance and zombie horror into a comedy. Sure there are compromises – it doesn’t revel in the horror as much as audiences have become accustomed (i.e. desensitised) to, but perhaps the point; and it understandably tones down the comedy lest it make a mockery of any potential tension – but it’s arguably harder to make a horror with comedy than vice versa. Of course that’s not to say that we don’t get bits of extreme gore – we do. This is definitely full horror, perhaps even more so than all but the first Scream movie (and even then only in its hard-to-find uncut original version). Cleverly, though, we aren’t treated to an oppressive, in-your-face excess which just detracts from the effect; indeed Whedon and co. know precisely when to say ‘less is more’ and cut away from the slasher blow, and when to throw it right in your face (sometimes quite literally). It’s the perfect balance.
The cast is good, and they’re all well up for being in on this game – each getting to play what almost amounts to two roles: their initial characters and then the clichéd stereotypes too. Chris Hemsworth adds another decent notch to his resume, which looks pretty good now (Thor, Avengers, and he was one of the best things about Snow White and the Huntsman). I’m guessing the studios are praying that they don’t screw everything up with Red Dawn. Reasonably new to the field is Kristen Connolly who plays the ‘virgin heroine’ role smartly and engagingly; Anna Hutchinson so easily slips into hotpants and sexy dances for the role of increasingly dumb (through no fault of her own) blonde, Jules; and Whedon regular Fran Kratz – who was infuriatingly awful in the disappointing Dollhouse – manages to strike the right note here as the pot-smoking comedy element, ending up one of the best characters in the piece.
‘Supporting’ the slasher-horror victims we get a group of office-workers who seem to be playing the plight of this hapless bunch as if it were an elaborate interactive video-game. The versatile Richard Jenkins (Killing Them Softly, Let Me In, Friends with Benefits) and the fast-talking Bradley Whitford (weightier and initially almost unrecognisable as being the stalwart from The West Wing) are perfectly chosen for their humorous observations and laid-back attitude towards engineering the demise of these innocents. Obviously there is a grander plan behind even their actions, but initially we are in pure entertainment territory as – through them – we find ourselves facing the most hilarious satirical horror commentary that you could imagine. Whether it’s the office betting pool established, or just the overly-enthusiastic moments that see them egging on the blonde to reveal her breasts, it’s all poking fun at genre staples (the nod to scary-girl Japanese horror is brilliant), whilst also delivering at the same time. Perhaps most telling, though, is the whole elaborate set-up that justifies their manipulative actions, at once mocking all those conspiratorial torture porn scenarios, whilst also forging a strange but well-thought-out scenario in which people might actually act like this.
Of course they get some of the best – classic Whedon – dialogue, and are also themselves supported by moderately successful cameos from the likes of Whedon-verse regulars, Tom Lenk and the lovely Amy Acker (Serenity), the latter of whom is again severely underused. There’s one final nice cameo towards the end but I’ll leave that to fans to see if they can guess the actor from, initially, just the voice playing over the intercom. It’s a nice touch.
Working with a fairly restrictive budget of $30 Million (particularly given the number of effects shots needed for the final act), Whedon and Goddard have certainly made the most of what they had to play with, and have done exactly what they set out to do in the first place: writing a caustic love letter about the horror genre (and slashers in particular), attempting to highlight everything that fans have grown to hate about it, and bring back to the fore the core elements that made it great in the first place, whilst also offering a deeper meaning to both sets of ingredients. It’s clever, innovative filmmaking and it’s just disappointing that the studios shelved it for so long, and then released it largely without any kind of fanfare.
Even dedicated film fans would have been forgiven for assuming this was just another “average indie horror flick” when it hit theatres during its limited run earlier this year. Whedon’s name should have been a selling-point, not treated as some kind of warning label, and yet, with Avengers still unreleased, they didn’t think anybody would pay attention to some mid-budget revisionist horror ‘written by that guy who made Buffy’. It’s a shame because, with better marketing, this could have reached a far wider audience – especially telling when you see the Box Office numbers it did reap in, and the high critical acclaim and audience response that it has received since. Hopefully, now he’s done Avengers (and is lined-up for Avengers 2), studios will pay attention to his projects. It’s just as shame that all people remember is Dollhouse, when this is the same guy that gave us Buffy, Angel, Firefly and the movie sequel Serenity. Perhaps now we’ll get the other two chapters in the Serenity trilogy. Whatever it is he comes up with, I’m there.
So check out The Cabin in the Woods. Expect humour, horror, chemistry and conspiracies; expect good dialogue, great ideas and decent effects, as well as more than a few twists that will leave you scratching your head as to whether there is a single horror cliché that actually applies to this novel addition. Maybe it won’t single-handedly reinvent the horror genre, or the teen slasher sub-genre, but it certainly will give future filmmakers a good idea as to what fans truly want. This one hits the spot.
NB. It should be noted that there were some playback problems initially experienced with this release. These have now been fixed by means of a fairly swiftly-dispatched replacement disc. I go into greater detail in the video section of this review.
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