THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

The Cabin in the Woods
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THE CABIN IN THE WOODS



Written by James Read
10 Saturday 10th March 2012



The trailer for The Cabin in the Woods seems to give away pretty much everything - group of teenagers go away for the weekend in the woods, bad shit happens, they die - but that would be too easy. There's effectively two storylines to the film - the slasher surface used in promotional materials, and a satirical underbelly which is hinted at but coyly tucked away. Before we get to discussing the film properly, I should say that I think it is probably a film better watched without knowing too much about said secondary subplot, and thus also a film that's going to be a real bastard to review without spoilers. But I'll try my best.

The words horror and comedy should rarely meet. Their child is a trailer trash frankenstein's monster - brash and in want of attention. No one likes it, and it has become resentful. But Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have given it a heart, brain and teeth. It would have been much easier to make a clumsy, bludgeoning spoof like Scary Movie, hacking away at the most obvious tropes and breaking the fourth wall for cheap gags. But instead we get a celebration of a genre we love, with a few well-placed kicks at the cheapest tricks in the book - something that's more like Mystery Science Theater 3000, but with the whole office watching instead of just the janitor.



All this works so well because even when it is being tugged inevitably towards its 'not-your-average-slasher-flick' third act, it doesn't give up on being a horror film. There's still genuine scares, and a loving recognition of the formulae of slightly predictable horror movies. They have their time and place, alongside tatty old tracksuit bottoms and bad takeaway pizza with cheese in places not made for cheese. Their trashiness is what makes them reassuring and comfortable. It's a bit of a strange niche to find within a genre that's supposed to terrify, but there it is. And The Cabin in the Woods cherishes this nook and celebrates it warmly. It knows that we need likeable characters, and it gives us them. But it knows that there's a sick part of us that's waiting for them to die horribly as well. And it doesn't disappoint on that front either.

Even while our troupe makes up every cliche in the book, they break character enough for us to love them. Curt (the Jock), knows his tutor's reading list, Marty (the Stoner) understands what's going on around him, and Holden (the Heartthrob) knows Latin. Okay, so the surprising thing about all of them is that they're smart. But that's what makes this a good film - it is smart, but it doesn't let overwrought plot twists and foreshadowing breadcrumbs get in the way of having a good time. These are all still characters that are supposed to die. And I'm told that Whedon rather likes killing off his characters, especially when you expect them to live.



There's enough subversive nods to the genres tropes - such as one Curt suggesting that they should split up to search the cabin, only to be reality-checked by our bowl-packing antihero Marty - that we don't expect everything to go by the rulebook. But if it didn't, we'd start to see that coming too. The Cabin in the Woods is all about expectation - what we want to happen and what we know will happen. Suspense only builds because we think an axe must surely burst through the wall if a guy gets a girl's clothes off, and so cringe at the unclasping of a bra hook. If the characters were too smart, and knew the pitfalls of going into the basement or ignoring the warnings of the crazy redneck, then we wouldn't care about them. It's a tricky wire to walk, but Whedon and Goddard do it with finesse.

But all this isn't to say this is a unbridled love letter to scary movies - Whedon takes a deep swipe at gore porn, which he clearly sees as inferior to the good, clean, suspense-driven slashers and zombie flicks of the 80s. I won't talk too much about Bradley Whitford's character, since he comes from the other story that I said I wouldn't talk about, but it's in deconstructing the gore voyeur that he gets a large slice of his jokes, which he delivers with the wittiness and walk'n'talk pace that made him so likeable as The West Wing's Josh Lyman.



While we've got Whedon's typical strong female lead on show in the form of Dana (Kristen Connolly), the star of the show is Marty, who is essentially Scooby Doo. He knows that the ghost is really the embittered old man from up the hill, but he's so baked that the gang laugh and tell him to lay off the Scooby Snacks. He's the fool, and he's brilliantly played - one minute the rational voice telling his friends that exploring the basement might be a bad idea, and the next chasing shadows and too silly to take himself seriously.

Even while I was enjoying the film though, I was worried for the treacherous end game - once the killing has started, how do you maintain the pace? Especially tricky in TCITW, since those two storylines I mentioned have to eventually come together and resolve. But it does pretty well. It's not perfect (and the final shot is cheap as hell), but it changes its game enough to keep us interested. Oh, and there's a wonderfully surprising cameo that anyone with a fondness for horror will love.

So how did Joss Whedon introduce the screening? "This is a romantic  comedy about a talking dog..." And if you go in believing that, then you'll have a hell of a time.

The Cabin in the Woods is out Friday 13th April

 

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