The horror genre in film has proven to be remarkably malleable during its existence. While earlier entries were dead serious (or at least intended to be), later films began to become spoofy, referential, and even self-referential. Some were designed specifically to parody the exploits of monsters and vampires and their shadowy confines, to elicit knowing giggles. Others tried to have it both ways, simultaneously tickling and scaring the audience. I can reference back to the age of Abbott and Costello, following with many silly Mad Magazine type parodies.
In the early 80s, films taking aim at the ever popular slashers were opening every few months (SATURDAY THE 14th et al.). AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released in 1981, was one of the first truly successfully horror films that infused a wicked sense of humor. John Landis' film also worked in many clever references to terror forefathers like Lon Chaney and the sorts of films in which he appeared. It all worked - compelling narrative, groundbreaking effects, fun references, a cheeky yet forboding attitude.
This year's THE CABIN IN THE WOODS tries very hard to succeed in that vein. You might note that I haven't referenced Wes Craven's SCREAM and its sequels. I do consider the first few entries in that franchise to cleverly satirize the horror genre (and its fans), while being fairly eerie movies in their own right. It would seem inevitable that CABIN would be best compared with SCREAM, but I disagree. Craven's films were fixated on a very specific type of horror - the slasher, the slice and dice. CABIN takes on seemingly everything writers Drew Goddard (also director) and Joss Whedon (who produced) could imagine: zombie flicks, torture porn (HOSTEL and SAW films). And yes, all the monster and vampire movies. It feels closer to the spirit of AMERICAN WEREWOLF, but is ultimately more like a prepubescent boy's imagination gone unchecked.
The scenario is classic: a quintet of undergraduates, each fitting neatly into an assigned label: jock, whore, stoner, nice guy, and innocent, head to the mountains for a weekend in a cousin's ancient cabin for some old school R and R. There isn't a cell phone tower within miles! On the way, they meet the predictably ominous gas station attendant who tries (none too hard) to warn them of forthcoming peril. He's plenty ornery and spits on the ground a few times.
The cabin turns out, yeah man, to be way cool and all, but what's up with that 2-way mirror in between bedrooms? Upon discovering this, nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams) prevents Dana, the "virgin" (Kristen Connolly) from removing her top in the next room before a drop of drool escapes his lips. Later, the group discovers a basement filled with lots of weird artifacts and a book with verses written in Latin that has a grisly back story. Dana is encouraged to read the words aloud. Is it a coincidence that zombies suddenly appear outside? Of course not, but the reasons are not why you would think, especially if you've watched EVIL DEAD one hundred times. If you have not seen CABIN IN THE WOODS, I suggest you stop reading this review now.
The entire scenario, it turns out, is being engineered by 2 technician pencil necks (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, in some inspired casting) who pull switches to manipulate every action in and around the cabin. Their boss is some important figure "upstairs". The pair make wisecracks, express boredom, and collect money from an army of co-workers who pool to see how and when each kid gets it. The entire thing is scripted, and to ensure things go as planned, drugs are pumped through the vents of the cabin and even outside, mainly to impair judgment but also to increase libido. If you've seen 1 or 2 slashers, you know what happens to horny teens. But what if the stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz), is already so high he is immune to the drugs? What will happen if all (or at least most) of the kids don't die?
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS gradually reveals, especially in its eventful third act, why an organization would perpetuate such a cruel game and also why the hell this too-clever-by-half film exists in the first place. It is not just another crappy latter day horror flick that looks bad (and I must say that the cinematography here is as poor as in any number of contemporary thrillers). I will not reveal exactly what occurs, or the final moments with its hasty explanations and bizarre (but ultimately lame) conclusion. But Goddard and Whedon, who have a lot on their minds, reveal, I suppose, that they are essentially geniuses, albeit with a 13 year old's disorganization of thought and over-the-top enthusiasm. But to get an idea, consider this quote from Goddard:
"The horror movie is merely the jumping off point for the inherent questions about humanity that the genre suggests. Why, as a people, do we feel the need to marginalize, objectify, and destroy youth? And this is not specific to the genre, or movies in general, or our present day culture. We've been doing this to youth since we first began as a people and this question-the question of why-is very much at the heart of CABIN."While I can see (and am intrigued) why the men pose such interesting questions, their movie again merely plays like that young boy imagination gone out of bounds. Kitchen sink? That scratches the surface. The latter part of this film, while crazily entertaining and impressive, goes a bit astray of the filmmakers' intentions, calling attention to itself, then concluding with ideas that breathless schoolkids would frantically scribble in short stories to impress their like-minded friends. Frustrating mess, this movie, but worth seeing nonetheless. It does manage a genuine scare or 2, as is not as silly as other horror spoofs, but still a bit immature, methinks.