Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Warning: This review contains spoilers, a lot of them. In the very first paragraph, no less. But seeing how I don't think you should care about the film and its ridiculous premise, then I encourage you to read on. If you're a fan of Joss Whedon however, then go right ahead and buy a ticket for The Cabin in the Woods so you can bask in the man's awesome awesomeness already.

There's an essential question one should ask when trying to appraise the immensely overrated Cabin in the Woods: How do you make an underwhelming horror film more interesting? Oh, I know! By tacking on a subplot involving a bunch of office workers manipulating the fate of the protagonists through a boring computer console, then placing bets on the outcome of their ordeal. By making sure that these white collar bores throw in the occasional office joke, you're sure to lighten things up and make sure everyone forgets that there's still a bunch of teens out there that are getting slaughtered by generic zombies in the generic wood cabin elaborated by corporate R&D. Then, you're ready to have the whole thing climax with a battle between the stoner "hero" of the film and Sigourney Weaver, who pops in during the last act to explain the whole meta joke. Finish it all off with a crude deux ex machina and you've got... What have you got? A loving homage to Evil Dead? What, because the cabin looks exactly the same? A brilliantly meta horror film? Certainly not. An overlong episode of Lost? Couldn't say, I don't watch TV.

When TV aesthetics run amok:
The Cabin in the Woods

Every time a film like The Cabin in the Woods is released, I get all excited. I can't fight it. My brain keeps reminding me: "Dude, this is just gonna be an overblown TV movie!", but my heart won't listen. After all, maybe the film will reveal itself to be that rare gem, that truly meta treat that you find only once in a while. This forces me to check things out for myself... and often waste my time. Here, I certainly did... although I encountered very little forewarning from the film critics who are supposed to protect viewers from unimaginative drivel such as this. With a surprising aggregate score of 92% (!) on Rotten Tomatoes and an army of would-be serious people wetting themselves over how delightfully satyric the film is, I was bound to be misled in my enthusiastic desire to see something transcendental onscreen. Evidently, I had anticipated the fact that Joss Whedon's popularity might have artificially increased the interest for the film, but I couldn't imagine how 92% could be wrong, especially in their usage of the word "entertaining", which in itself is a mild compliment at best, and their preferring it to "challenging", which the film isn't, but should've been...

Uncharacteristically, the narrative opens with two office workers talking about domestic issues around the coffee machine. Now, maybe this is a good entry point into the film if you're used to that kind of dreary exchanges, or if you can derive some giggles from such a bland expository device, but otherwise, you risk to start sighing right away. Prior to seeing the film, I read an interview with director Drew Goddard and producer Whedon in which they explained how they wanted to use these two characters as stepping stones into the meta joke that the film is supposed to be. Seeing how we were meant to recognize the two TV actors playing the characters (Six Feet Under's Richard Jenkins and The West Wing's Bradley Whitford), the realization that "hey, we're not in a dumb horror film here" should've come naturally. Unfortunately, such subtleties were lost on me as I don't watch TV . And thus arises the first of many contradictions to plague The Cabin in the Woods. You can't do an homage to film by using televisual aesthetics and references, unless you can find a way to equate film and TV, which is something that no film fan will EVER do. Comparing film and TV is like comparing filet with ground horse meat. And here, we're served a horse meat burger for the price of a filet. From what I understand, the entire cast seems to come from Whedon's roster of actors, making the entire enterprise Whedon-centric and likely to please only the very precise, but terrifyingly vast, slice of market at which the producers have aimed: people who "don't like horror films, but LOVE Joss Whedon". So here you have it: The Cabin in the Woods is not a horror film but a comedic Whedon vehicle catering to the undiscriminating fans of his TV series. Period. Grandest interpretations will likely crumble under the weight of their own inconsistencies.

Even Lennie Small had flashes of genius,
but they didn't make him one

Let us go back to this interview I read last week ("The Cabin in the Woods: lettre d'amour aux films d'horreur" by Sonia Sarfati, La Presse), which first alarmed me about the shallowness of the entire enterprise. In it, the guys at the helm simply state that "they love to laugh and to be scared at the same time", which is why they basically structured their film as a vastly incongruous series of obvious jokes and cheap scare tactics. The simplicity of that statement should also point to the lack of depth involved in the creative process. It's as if Evil Dead (from which Goddard and Whedon borrow the titular locale) was suddenly understood as a mere mash-up of jokes and scare tactics, when it is actually a far more complex, highly expressive endeavor with Sam Raimi's muscular direction as the key. Here, the narrative proceeds from a simple, and highly dubious alternation of jokes and scares, with the former defusing the latter (and vice-versa) in a tedious, systematic demonstration of self-defeating filmmaking. I should've trusted Mediafilm's review in that regard, instead of listening to Whedon's army of fanboys, as it bluntly stated: "[...] the film fails on both levels: humorous and horrific." And it does so precisely because each of these levels, given the simplistic treatment at work here, contradict each other constantly.

All in all, the film isn't even truly meta, as it doesn't really reflect on how it is to make a film. Evidently, you can read the narrative as a critique of commercial filmmaking, the result of which is a landscape of interchangeable scenarios starring a bunch of archetypical characters. But seeing how the film vies to slavishly reproduce the models which it ridicules, that critique can also be directed at The Cabin in the Woods itself. Besides, the meta elements of the story eventually merge with the clichéd aspects thereof as the two stories (of the terrorized teens and their white collar tormentors) collide, making the former to be no more than the parts of a simple twist on the dated material which Whedon and company simultaneously deny and embrace at the same time. In the end, it all boils down to a a simple meta twist that completely fails to transcend the genre. Because in the end, we're left with the same old shit than we're used to: some kills (usually badly shot in near total darkness), some tits and some prepackaged jokes to screw it all up, with the same, tired old last stand involving a couple of bloodied, panting characters resting after having vanquished the last of the ghouls, only to be suddenly destroyed by a larger foe whose appearance makes the audience jump and laugh one last time before leaving the theater. Now, a simple beastie would've done the trick in this last instance. Instead, we are treated to the cheapest trick in the book: deus ex machina, the recourse to which is at best a crude reference to Greek tragedy. It's as if Whedon and company just had to have their film end in the most obvious way possible so as to make yet another dubious statement about the "obviousness" of the film genres from which they draw their bread and butter.

Complaining while borrowing, or how walking
on people's heads is the way to the top

Obviousness, this is a rather relevant keyword here as it permeates every aspect of every scene, even those that are located in the "real" world of boring office buildings. I should like to call the film (Horror) cinema for dummies. Hell, at least there's some aura of mystery surrounding the two office workers when we first meet them. The two of them simply talk of an "important" task at hand, the boundaries of which are hazy at best. At this point, speculation helps the spectator get a kick out of the unfolding storyline. At this point, he/she is still involved in trying to piece the puzzle together. But as things unfold, every single narrative tenet is exposed so thoroughly, as to completely distill its efficiency. Some mechanisms are even explained twice, so as to make sure that everybody gets it. A case in point: while it has been explicitly stated that the prowling monster is selected through the victims' usage of the artifacts found in the cellar, the guys at the helm decided to add yet scene to explain that fact, just in case we weren't listening the first time around. Confronted with a series of plastic capsules containing various drooling mythological monsters (including a grade-B imitation of Hellraiser's Cenobites), the redhead "virgin" becomes teary-eyed before she declares: "In the cellar, they made us choose!". Watching this dead-serious scene, which concludes with a tracking shot that reveals an interlocking grid of plastic capsules meant to evoke a Rubik's cube, I was imagining Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon scratching their heads, trying to figure out if they'd already explained the politics of monster-selection, or if they should take this opportunity to give us a clue. Seeing how imperative it seemed for them to humor the viewers, they must have thought it a good idea to recap, just like one would at the beginning of a TV episode. Now, that's probably great for the spectators who were out taking a piss earlier on, but for those who stayed, those who like film and don't feel the need to be constantly reminded of what's going on, it provides yet another chance to roll your eyeballs and make a cynical comment.

The Cabin in the Woods is a lazy film that relies on one clever idea to propel the narrative through to the end, while borrowing from the laziness of others to fill in the gaps, all the while criticizing that laziness in order to enhance its own status. As most films, it does contains some good moments, but these moments all pertain to pure horror, such as the lascivious make-out session with the wolf's head, the battles involving the hero's retractable bong and the surprisingly gory monster mash located near the end. These are the only moments during which I felt a tad alive, and willing to fully open my eyes and watch. After all, who wouldn't prefer the sight of viscera splashed across a wall, to that of old men with ties clicking on buttons? Last time I checked, genre films were still about excitement, which The Cabin in the Woods provides only in the last act, as it severs the strings fastened around the protagonists, those very same strings that the director himself has attached so as to make their actions as mechanical as possible. Freed from its creators, the film does seem to gain some altitude, but as a fly caught in a jar, it finds just enough room to bounce endlessly against the glass walls of its prison And thus, so too is the hardcore horror fan trapped in a lonely prison, surrounded by pagans who seem to derive pleasure from his suffering as they laugh at the mutilation of his most beloved friend...

Only with straight horror does The
Cabin in the Woods
find redemption

In the end, when trying to rate The Cabin in the Woods, I found myself in a bind. Despite the fact that the film is incredibly overrated, I can't say that it is worse than the myriad of films from which it derives. It is not worse, but not better either. For being savvy to the fact that you're making a crap film doesn't enhance the result. If it did, then all Alan Smithee films would suddenly become classics, and we certainly don't want that. Nor do we want The Cabin in the Woods to be considered a beacon for a genre from which it borrows a lot without giving anything back. So, here it is:

1,5/5 Lazy, tedious, cheaply-made film has delusions of grandeur thanks to one clever, but badly executed, vastly over-used twist on derivative material. For a really clever, transcendental effort in genre deconstruction, be sure to check out Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon as it also offers savvy insight on documentary cinema.