WARNING: This review contains major GRUMPINESS
I liked THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, but it’s the kind of movie that people who don’t like horror movies say is THE BEST HORROR MOVIE IN YEARS. Of course it seems that way to them because 1) they don’t have that much to compare it to, they just have a hunch about what those other ones are like, those bad ones, and 2) since they don’t like horror movies that much they prefer one that’s not really that much of a horror movie.
If you say that I hope you’ve seen THE WOMAN, MARTYRS, INSIDE, maybe THE LOVED ONES, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, HILLS HAVE EYES, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Throw on FRONTIER(S) maybe for good measure. Maybe P2. Hell, HALLOWEEN II. Not saying you’ll like all of these better than CABIN, but you gotta have something more to compare it to than PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and SHAUN OF THE DEAD.
Sorry to rant, but as a proud Fangorian-American I take this kinda shit personally. To me, CABIN IN THE WOODS isn’t a horror movie. It’s horror-once-removed, but an enjoyable example of that, like TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL. It has a clever way of playing with some of the more obvious horror cliches. It has a good cast, likable characters and alot of laughs. But I call bullshit on the idea that it also works as a legit horror movie. And you know how I am. I prefer the real deal.
Look, all I’m saying is that horror comedy is to real horror as smooth jazz is to actual jazz. That’s all. Nothing wrong with that. Real horror is an acquired taste, it isn’t for everybody. Alot of people prefer something gentle, like a songbird. I don’t look down on you for that. Freedom to, you know– pursuing liberty, or whatever.
Good, we all agree. Now, The Internet has decreed that the premise of this movie is a spoiler. If so I’m not gonna try to write a spoilerless review, because that would be a pointless review. So from here on out I’m assuming you’ve seen the movie.
I’m not trying to be a parade pisser. I really did like this movie, and I shouldn’t ruin it by worrying about what other people are saying. But I’m running late here and you’ve already seen 250 rave reviews, so I think it’s worth going into some of my quibbles with what the reviews and the movie itself are saying about the genre.
Ever since this played at Butt-numb-a-thon and some film festivals the reviews have been loaded with exclamation points and shit. As you can see, this poster managed to find a review with the words “groundbreaking” and “game changer” (although just in the headline it looks like). I just read a review that opened with the words, “When Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO opened in 1960…” I mean jesus. The more down-to-earth ones claim it will have an influence like SCREAM did, but I don’t buy that either.
Here are some things the success of SCREAM did:
* popularized the idea of characters in horror movies being aware of what happens in horror movies when they face similar situations
* to a lesser extent popularized horror movies where characters make direct reference to favorite horror movies
* began a wave of slick studio horror aimed at teens, with pop rock soundtracks and casts made up mostly of good looking television stars
* temporarily revived the PROM NIGHT style whodunit-slasher subgenre
A couple of those, actually, are still echoing in CABIN IN THE WOODS. But what influence could this movie have? Maybe inspire a few shitty “what if (type of horror movie) was actually being done secretly by scientists!?” copycats, but I doubt that’ll happen.
Maybe my problem is I kind of resent how some of these reviews talk about CABIN as some much needed kick in the ass for the genre. You really believe postmodernism and wisecracks is the missing ingredient in horror? If there’s a problem in horror right now it’s that there’s too much recycling and navel-gazing in the form of remakes and references and homages, and this falls into a couple of those categories. But we still got hugely original movies like THE WOMAN coming out, lots of crazy shit goin on overseas, even some of the remakes are good, the SAW-inspired wave seems to have died down so there’s an opening for some new cycle to come along… you know, there have been worse times for horror. I don’t think it needs to get sat down for a lecture about archetypes at this moment..
But I think most of us agree, even if CABIN IN THE WOODS isn’t “A GAME-CHANGER”, it is a clever twist. It’s part of THE EVIL DEAD plot, but puppeteered by a CUBE type massive experiment, overseen by mundane office workers, all as a metaphor about the place horror holds in our culture. That’s a unique combination of elements. And that’s a good thing.
What worked best for me was the cast and the characters. They say funny things and that makes me like them. Co-writer/producer Joss Whedon is known for his quips and stylized language, and he gets lots of those in without seeming too forced. Also the girls are kinda hot and sometimes don’t wear pants.
Within pretty standard types (the girl who needs to forget about school and let loose, that kind of thing) they have some good character-establishing moments, like when the new guy gets a chance to spy on the hot girl naked but feels guilty and warns her and switches rooms to make her feel better about it.
I liked that there was a dirt bike on the back of the RV, because that sends a message to the audience that says, “there is gonna be a part with a dirt bike later.” And its word is its bond. There is a part with a dirt bike later.
Some of my favorite parts of the movie are weird moments that, in retrospect, I’m not sure make any sense. If there’s a reason for the two-way mirror in the house I don’t know what it is. And the she’s-losin-it tension of the girl making out with the taxidermied wolf head doesn’t turn out to have an important story reason to happen, as far as I can tell. But I love it.
By the way, the power of IMDb has taught me that the actress who plays Jules, the slightly freaky, recently bleached-blond girl in that scene, appeared on a 2008 television program called Power Rangers Jungle Fury:
So I’m sure some of the younger individuals who grew up on that show got some extra enjoyment out of the sexy dance she does. And if anybody out there has a thing for Yellow Rangers and for dead wolves then I’d say their Lotto numbers just came up. Congratulations, sicko.
I enjoyed these characters enough that a couple of them, when they died, it seemed like they were gone too soon. For example, Thor. And the dirt bike. I could’ve used more screen time for both.
The standout character is obviously Fran Kranz as the stoner guy. He somehow found a new way to play a broad, comic stereotype. And he’s believable both as a drugged out wacko and the most perceptive one in the group.
Richard Jenkins (LET ME IN) and Bradley Whitford (REVENGE OF THE NERDS II: NERDS IN PARADISE, M&Ms commercials) are pretty much playing their standard characters, but they’re well chosen for the job. They’re mostly there to alternate between arrogant and stressed out as they push buttons, pull levers, and spit out exposition. Alot of the fun in the movie is watching all the details of how they attempt to TRUMAN SHOW a group of normal people into fitting the stereotypes and behaviors of horror movie characters. People like to complain about characters making dumb decisions in these movies. Here that’s the result of a coordinated behind-the-scenes effort. I like that.
In some sense this movie’s dealing with the cliches of what the cliches of horror movies are. Really, how common are these tropes in modern horror, or even in the classics? I’m still not sold on the “final girl has to be a virgin” being a common thing in slasher movies, even though they said it was in SCREAM. Obviously the cabin comes from THE EVIL DEAD – who was the jock, the virgin, the fool in THE EVIL DEAD? Which category did Ash fit? In HALLOWEEN Laurie would have to be the virgin, and PJ Soles is the fool? Or is Annie the fool because she puffed on that joint in the car? Didn’t Laurie share it? Were any of these character categories in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or HELLRAISER (since it’s explicitly referenced in the movie) or any of the Romero zombie movies (since they got alot of zombies) or very many of the modern horror movies that have been popular, like SAW and HOSTEL? Not that much. But it is a fun idea that for some reason people like that are needed to be sacrificed to ancient gods to keep humanity safe, and there’s even an ancient carving of a guy holding a javelin, suggesting that the tradition of dumb jocks goes back to a long time before letterman’s jackets.
Weirdly, I think CABIN is sort of the reverse of many weak horror movies. Alot of times you don’t give a shit about the characters and the story’s not that great but alot of creativity went into making the killer look cool and giving him exciting ways to surprise and impale people. This one it seems like they put all of their effort into the characters and concepts and very little into the horror. There are approximately twenty times as many monsters and killers as in most horror movies, but none of them are very cool. Lots of people die, but I don’t remember being impressed by any of the specific ways. It’s well directed in the sense of performances, but below-average in the sense of creating atmosphere, a more important element in horror than in most genres. It has some really exciting shit that goes down but alot of the staging is very chaotic (and not helped by iffy digital effects).
Yeah, I know, they’re trying to do alot on a small budget. But that’s what all horror movies do. How many horror classics had as much money as they wanted in the budget? Maybe THE SHINING? You gotta do what you can with the money you have. That’s why THE EVIL DEAD is THE EVIL DEAD, isn’t it?
Maybe the smartest thing about CABIN is the way it plays with your identification. You side with the kids and want them to live because that’s what you do in a story like this, but you also find out that if they live then the world will end. But you’re still rooting for them and you disapprove of the scientists in the underground lab being so callous and having fun watching them die. But of course you’re also the guys in the underground lab watching them, feeling bad for them while wanting them to die for everyone else’s benefit. They have a shot or two of the scientists silhouetted against their big screens as a horror scene is going on and in front of that you see the row of people in front of you in the actual theater silhouetted against your giant screen…
But for me the split identification was also a slight problem because of the expectations it set up for the ending. Since I’m siding with the kids who have to die and against the scientists who are killing them to save the world, I’m hoping to see the kids win. And by them winning that means the ancient gods get loose and then we get to see the contingency plan they have for when that happens, right?
Oh no, when that happens it just means the movie ends. So it kind of felt like the cop out version of the non-cop out ending. Oh well.
Devin Feraci on Badass Digest pointed out that the movie symbolically shows horror formula as an important, world-saving ritual, and that it’s the self aware character that turns everything to shit and ends the world. Like a reversal of SCREAM. It’s your self awareness and deconstruction that ruins everything, wiseass. That’s a great point. Stop postmoderning everything and it’ll work better. The subtext of the movie is in love with pure horror. It just seems to me like the top layer didn’t get the memo.
The smart-alecky tone is what makes CABIN fun, but I think it helps make it not scary. If every time someone starts to make an impassioned speech or a dramatic point it turns out to be set-up for a joke (like the funny scene where the crazy-old-man-who-tried-to-warn-them is ranting about the end times and suddenly gets distracted that he’s on speaker phone), then it starts to feel like the dramatic parts don’t count.
That brings up the comparison to SCREAM again. What’s great about SCREAM is that it’s a deconstruction but it’s not a parody, it uses its deconstruction as its slasher gimmick. It really means it, so it works as one of the better entries in the whodunit-slasher subgenre. It has likable characters that the actors take seriously, it has a simple, primally scary mask, it has tense set pieces (especially that epic opening sequence).
Compare that to the fucking giant snake in CABIN IN THE WOODS. The filmatists show their hand in that final act. If they wanted this to be a sincere horror movie that actually scares people then they wouldn’t be so lax with the scariness level of their monster menagery. The idea of our heroes unleashing all the different monsters on their captors is brilliant all-hell-literally-breaks-loose horror action, so it’s fun. But wouldn’t it be alot more fun if it tried to be scary? They chose “wouldn’t it be funny if they were all the different ‘types’ of crappy movie monsters” over “let’s make a wide variety of great monsters!” So it’s “ha ha, this part is like THE RING” instead of trying to come up with something you haven’t quite seen before like they did with the SILENT HILL pyramid head, the WUFs in THE DESCENT, the little guys in DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the different guys in PAN’S LABYRINTH. Something actually kinda spooky. Or at least cool.
Trivia: I noticed Ken Kirzinger, Jason from FREDDY VS. JASON, did stunts on the movie. But there’s no monsters in here as good as Jason. At least there wasn’t a cheap knock off of him, as far as I noticed.
Goddard and Whedon come from doing Buffy Vampire Slayer on tv, where they had to do a whole bunch of episodes and it was a one-off monster so if the “we need a demon that eats eyeballs this week” was kinda lame you could probly forgive it. But in a movie I don’t know about a giant cobra. Maybe the giant bat. Probly not the merman if it wasn’t kind of necessary after all the references to it. But definitely not the god damn Dollar Store Pinhead knock-off. That was where I almost turned on the movie.
I smiled at the HELLRAISER-esque puzzle earlier on. It was a funny idea that the basement was stocked with that, a diary, a medallion, a music box and film reels (a reference to THE EVIL DEAD’s reel-to-reel tape, I think), like they really had to put a bunch of evil-releasing shit in that cellar just to be sure. If they just had one evil artifact maybe none of the kids would find it.
I get it, but do I have to see a guy with buzz saws in his head that looks worse than the new guy playing Pinhead in the latest DTV sequel? Worse than the CD head guy in part 3? What’s the issue here, if they make up a cool new Cenobite it’s copyright infringement, but if they make a shitty Mad Magazine one then it’s fair use? There’s alot going on in there, maybe I missed the fedora-wearing burn victim with the long spikes on his knuckles and the yellow and blue striped sweater. If Fake Pinhead can be in a real horror movie then animated cat detective can be in a real action movie and LAST ACTION HERO was the best one since DIE HARD.
So I’m not entirely onboard for Cabinmania, because I’m not that big on horror comedies. But I definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it. And if I may say so as an outsider, CABIN IN THE WOODS IS THE BRUTAL SPANKING THE HORROR COMEDY GENRE HAS BEEN ASKING FOR BY THE WAY IT’S DRESSED, A GAME-CHANGING HORROR COMEDY, THE FUNNIEST SPOOK-A-LAFFS SINCE ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, A COMPLETE REINVENTION OF REVOLUTIONARY GROUNDBREAKER, I AM ERASING MY SHAUN OF THE DEAD TATTOO TO MAKE ROOM FOR QUOTES FROM THIS, etc.
I’m glad you guys enjoyed it so much. Here is a video I think you will also enjoy:
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.