Friday, April 27, 2012

'Cabin in the Woods' is a clever riff on the horror genre

Just weeks before the release of Joss Whedon's much-anticipated "Avengers," the massively budgeted smash up of some of Marvel comics biggest characters, we have "Cabin in the Woods," a much smaller project from the man behind such popular TV shows as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly" and "Dollhouse."

"Cabin in the Woods," co-written and produced by Whedon, is a self-reflexive horror movie somewhat in the tradition of the "Scream" franchise. Much like "Scream," the film is more black comedy and satire than goofy parody. As is true of all of Whedon's projects, the material is played straight, but doesn't take itself too seriously. Whedon's signature sharp wit is very much present.

A group of college students head to a remote cabin in the woods for the prerequisite sex, drugs and alcohol, but, naturally, encounter ghoulish company that turn their fun fatal. The twist, which is revealed early in the film, is that the cabin and surrounding area are controlled by a mysterious government agency that has chosen these rambunctious 20-somethings for slaughter.

It isn't clear what this agency is, but the why behind the cruel manipulation of the protagonists is the film's real twist. Attentive viewers should figure out what's going on around the mid-point, but the bigger implications of the twist are surprising if a bit silly.

This underground operation is headed by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, both masters of dry, sarcastic line delivery. Through the use of chemicals and pheromones, Jenkins and Whitford have transformed the hapless group of students into horror movie stereotypes.

The brainy Curt (Chris Hemsworth, "Thor") and Jules (Anna Hutchinson) turn into dimwitted, sex fiends and Dana (Kristen Connolly) begins to think of herself as a virgin. There's also a nice guy (Jesse Williams), who actually genuinely seems to be a nice guy, and the stoner (Fran Kranz).

Outside of the invaluable Jenkins and Whitford, Kranz is a the standout of the cast. Stoner characters are usually a source of cheap laughs and when played wrong are just annoying. In this case, the script gives Kranz some of the best lines and his paranoid, wide-eyed delivery scores big laughs. He also has a travel mug that turns into a bong, which later begins a handy weapon.

This is co-writer Drew Goddard's directorial debut having previously written for numerous TV show including "Buffy" and "Angel" and J.J. Abrams' "Alias" and Lost" as well as scripting the Abrams' produced movie "Cloverfield."

"Cloverfield" was a film filled with cardboard characters and cliches that convinced people it was more interesting than it was because it was shot with handheld cameras. That gimmick didn't hide that the characters and plot were still uninteresting, but did add the bonuses of motion sickness and not being able to see anything.

Thankfully, "Cabin in the Woods" is not filmed in the oh-so-trendy "found footage" style. Even though Whedon's irreverent edge is prevalent throughout the film, Goddard does a nice job of creating atmosphere, tension and some well-placed scares.

The script for "Cabin in the Woods" is just as riddled with barely sketched characters and cliches as "Cloverfield," but, this time, that's the point. Whedon and Goddard are basically deconstructing the horror film and showing the mechanism behind it. "Cabin in the Woods" has a wicked sense of humor that was sorely lacking in "Cloverfield." If these two films are any indication, Goddard is better off working with Whedon over Abrams.

The film's conclusion goes gloriously, absurdly and gruesomely over-the-top. This is probably the first film to have a killer unicorn. Those tuned into the same weird, genre-subverting wavelength as Whedon and Goddard will be smiling widely at the insanity of it all. If you're not with them, you're likely to think the film is just plain stupid. For the record, I was totally with them.

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