With a higher than usual budget for the genre and some name actors, The Cabin in the Woods takes the standard B-horror format and high-concepts it with a framework that's as grandiose as it is absurd. The little group of nice-looking college kids (spoilers coming) are human sacrifices in an elaborately staged and centrally coordinated ritual to appease malevolent ancient gods who, if not satisfied this time, will destroy the world. We know it's true, because Sigourney Weaver tells us so. It's all very clever, up to a point. Nothing survives scrutiny -- is it even meant to? They've thrown in everything but the kitchen sink here, including some beefcake and some female bump-and-grind, partly thanks to an antique two-way mirror, as well as an overlong make-out session with a stuffed wolf in a game of Truth or Dare. But though the whole setup is horrible in more ways than one, it isn't very scary. And conceptual overkill does not make for a memorable movie. You'll be momentarily amused and intrigued, then a little scared, then you'll be bored. The universe is crashing down? Ho hum. But who knows? This might make for a so-weird-it's-cool date movie.
Cabin in the Woods is a kind of lethal Pleasantville-Truman Show setup, like The Hunger Games one but much more manipulated, and unbeknownst to the victims, though one of them, the total stoner Marty (Fran Kranz, who is good enough to be currently playing in the Mike Nichols Death of a Salesman), eventually figures things out. It seems all the THC in his brain makes it immune to the grand manipulators' wiles.
The grand manipulations make for a kind of office party humor back at headquarters where it's all controlled (this is the part that turned me off the most). Back at HQ Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins joke around in shirtsleeves nursing paper cups and take bets on how the five victims will die, including two other guys, a smart-hunky one (Jesse Williams) and an athletic-hunky one (Chris Hemsworth of Thor, whose brother has a big role in The Hunger Games), and a dumb blonde (Anna Hutchison) whom the manipulators make even dumber by doping her hair bleach (I'm not making this up), and a wilier young lady (Kristen Connolly) who's the official sacrificial "virgin," but not really (Sigourney Weaver back at HQ: "We work with what we have").
Well, the five victims who're sent up to the Cabin in the Woods, warned along the way by a menacing grindhouse hick (Tim De Zarn) that death awaits them, have not a chance -- except that they do, thanks to the cowardly, corporate writer on this product, Joss Whedon, who lacks the originality and nihilism of George Romero, or any of the authentic Tarantino-fodder hacks, who at their best always came up with bold twists on the old ideas instead of just putting all those old ideas together along with a few new clichés hoping some of them will fly. They really don't, not this way. Instead of encountering a family of zombies, one of the victim young women pushes the Torture Family Zombies button. And we know that it's all governed from Central Control. And that just kills it, you know? Note: Whedon has his fans, being the force behind Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse on TV.
The torture family are religious fanatics. The picture of religion and of deities given in this film is really an incredibly crude and hideous one. And some of the thoughts are pretty nasty and sick. But since we know they're all artificial and insincere, they don't stick. Fortunately.
This is, of its kind, a polished movie. But its terribleness is all the more terrible for that. Why can't it tell a story where things just actually happen? If everything is going to be computer-generated not only on the screen but according to the story itself, what's the point? But the grandiosity turns to wit at one point when it turns out that many countries are performing their own elaborate high-tech rituals to appease the cruel gods, and in Japan it's young girls in school uniforms playing around with spirit flames. One tiny moment of visual wit isn't enough though. In this reversion to a story with a huge central control station following actors out in the field, maybe the omnivorous and unselective Whedon had also swallowed too much Bourne.Or did he work on The Office?
It's usually fun to see Sigourney Weaver turn up in a film. Initially one is pleased to see Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (of The West Wing) on hand, but that turns to embarrassment -- for them. Should they have lent their talents to this ugly farrago? This is billed as Horror Comedy. So, it's meant to be funny. That's a horrible idea.
The Cabin in the Woods is distributed by Lionsgate, like Hunger Games, with a production budget of $30 million. It was held up for a year to add post-production 3D, and then this idea was dropped. Director Drew Goddard co-wrote with Joss Whedon, who worked on the original Toy Story screenplay. Also Alien: Resurrection, which starred Sigourney Weaver. This is a Hollywood that's very inbred, and sometimes inbreeding produces monsters. Whedon wrote the screenplay for Cloverfield, pulp I liked. This pulp I didn't. It's too full of its own cleverness.
The Cabin in the Woods was released in the US, the UK, and many other countries April 13, 2012.
Copyright © by Chris Knipp
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