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Friday, April 13, 2012 

Film review: The Cabin in the Woods.


(Spoilers ahead. Natch.)

Caveat out of the way first: I haven't seen the whole of The Cabin in the Woods. Why? About twenty minutes before the end, the digital projector broke down in screen 10 of the local Odeon, or to be exact, the screen went green while the sound continued. Told it just needed rebooting, we waited through Underworld's Rez, Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street and another song before the manager came in and told us it couldn't be fixed. We got our money back and a free pass to a film within the next six months, so no problems on that front. As I said, these things happen.

I'd like to think it broke down because the projector simply couldn't take any more of this charmless, smarmy, far too clever for its own good film. It was so bad I contemplated walking out; having sat through 300 and Rob Zombie's desecration of Halloween, loathing both but not to the point where I'd had enough, that hopefully says a lot.

Co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who also directs, the idea behind Cabin is fine: just as Scream deconstructed and paid homage to the slasher genre, Cabin does much the same to Evil Dead. That's very far from its only influence and reference point, but it is the main one. 5 attractive college kids are going off for the weekend to the, err, cabin in the woods. We've got all the genre's archetypes: there's the stoner, the good girl, the jock and his party loving girlfriend, and as the love interest for the good girl, the friend of the jock who's actually shy, sweet and kind as well as being great at (American) football. Some have suggested that this is just as much the cast of Scooby Doo as it is the cliche horror film, and there's some truth in that; they're certainly as one dimensional as the characters in the cartoon.

The twist is that we're also following Sitterson and Hadley, two men in white shirts working away in what looks like an underground base of some kind. It soon turns out that they're in effect controlling the entire adventure of our other protaganists, although how they've been picked to take part isn't clear: someone connected to Jules has bought the cabin, and we don't get any explanation beyond that. Regardless, they aren't the only ones doing this; over in Japan another company is running a J-Horror equivalent, involving a ghost and school girls.

And that very brief section is by far the best part of the film, for the reason that J-Horror hasn't been pastiched or pointed and laughed at to anywhere near the extent that American horror has. That was the point at which I felt, well, there's not going to be anything to top that, I might as well go. Here's the thing: if you're going to go over the same old post-modern ground with horror, it's got to be either one of two things, or better yet, both. It's got to be either funny and/or scary. Cabin is neither. There are a few smirks and smiles here and there, mainly from Fran Kranz playing Marty, the classically paranoid but also perceptive stoner, and the scene where everyone in the base bets on which monsters will be called upon this time to stalk and menace our heroes, but that's about it.

The thing about Scream was that everyone in it recognised horror tropes, such as the person going out on their own, the sex and how that meant that they were not long for this world and so on. In Cabin it's as if that never happened, or indeed that none of the characters have ever seen a horror film, except perhaps for Marty. On their way to the cabin they pull up outside a garage, just like in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where they're warned off by a deeply sinister man. The gag is meant to be that, secretly, they're realising how corny this is and yet they go ahead and do the wrong thing anyway. The other ploy used is another theme gone over many times previously in horror: whether or not our desire to see the carnage makes us complicit. How far do horror directors pander to the audience's expectations? Must it be the case that at least one of the female characters has to get naked? Does it always have to be the innocent, perhaps virginal young woman who either dies last or survives (Cabin says it doesn't matter either way)? And is there some much deeper, atavistic reasoning behind the latter?

There is still plenty of room to ask these questions within the genre, but not in the arch, winking, clever clever way in which Cabin does. What's more, it seems to be ignoring its main source material: in both Evil Dead 1 and 2 it's Bruce Campbell's Ash who's the last man standing, and he is most certainly not virginal. Which is another problem: it uses Evil Dead as the template, but ignores the radicalism of that film. When Curt and Jules go off into the forest to have sex, helped along by the pheromones being pumped up through the soil by our friends in the base, I was hoping that we'd get a double tree rape to one-up the original; instead we simply get the zombiefied former residents of the cabin turning up to perform a very perfunctory, off-screen decapitation.

Whether you dislike it as much as I did may well come down to just how wide your knowledge of horror cinema is. I'm nerdy enough to have realised that the death sequence in the RV truck is a riff on a kill in one of the Friday the 13th sequels (Part IV, I think), and rather than being impressed that just sort of bores me. I've seen it all before. I've seen the cabin bits done better, and far funnier, in the first two Evil Deads, so why bother essentially remaking the original when there's so little effort being put in? I've seen the reality thing handled fairly comprehensively in My Little Eye, which is by no means a perfect film but is vastly superior to this. I've seen the complicity question asked by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, The Last Horror Movie and the original Funny Games. And I've seen straight up horror done better over the past decade by Haute Tension and The Descent to name but two.

Moreover, you don't need a film like Cabin to deconstruct other genre fare for you. You can do it more than adequately yourself. The first Evil Dead especially is a flawed film, but it's fantastic fun to watch and see the creakiness of certain sequences and laugh at the decisions made by the characters. You don't need to watch every single slasher ever made to note that there is something disquieting about how having sex is punishable by death or how it's often the single white female left until last. And you certainly don't need a film as smug as Cabin to be suggesting that you, the viewer are in some way responsible for any of this.

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If you missed the last twenty minutes, you missed a *lot*. (The Merman alone was well worth the wait.)

But I should say that I liked the first hour. I'm not a horror buff & didn't get any of the specific movie references, but I felt the mood of the film was playful rather than smug. I'm also a huge Joss Whedon fan, which may have helped.

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Quite possibly. From the other reviews I've read it doesn't look like I've missed much not seeing the actual ending; whether the bits before Sigourney Weaver turns up and explains what's happened would have tempered my criticism or not I don't know. I should add that on the whole it looks as though I'm in the minority, although on IMDB there seems a sizeable group who hated it as much as I did.

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