'The Cabin in the Woods' Amuses
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
At a recent New York press screening of the horror film "The Cabin in the Woods" by press kit-described "fan favorites" Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (the co-writers, who respectively produced and directed, have worked together on the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and bunches of other things), a publicist actually personally addressed the assembled reviewers beforehand with a poignant request that we "please refrain from disclosing the potential spoilers." This expression of concern came in the wake of the film's triumphant, sort of, premiere at the uber-fannish South by Southwest festival, which occasioned much literal beard-stroking from the film's enthusiasts, who pondered how to talk about the film's awesomeness without giving away the surprises that make it awesome.
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It's really enough, existentially, to make a beardless film critic start walking around muttering imprecations concerning monotheistic deities on a cracker. For this reviewer, such an impulse often wrestles with a desire to be a better person, to be cooperative, not just with publicists, but also with the public, the public that can now find out every plot point of "The Cabin in the Woods" via search but which may not want to. But how to write, finally, a truly spoiler-free review? I think it's possible, if I stick to answering, from my own subjective perspective, of course, three simple questions about the film.
1) Is "The Cabin in the Woods" clever?
Yes, pretty. The movie aspires to be the-thing-and-not-the-thing, that is, a kind of sendup/critique of contemporary horror films that delivers scares while upending the clichés of the genre in an even fresher fashion than, say, the first "Scream" did. As such, the premise, which I won't give away aside from telling you that there's a character in the film named "Truman," is pretty sharp and pretty convincingly executed. The collegiate crew headed for the titular cabin is a droll combo of archetypes from as far back as "Halloween" and, uh, "Scooby-Doo," and the unpleasantnesses they encounter bow purposefully to the likes of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and, you know, "Friday the 13th" and stuff. Of course, if one really wants to nitpick on it, one may. One potential question is, "If you're really invested in luring a group of young people to their slaughter, wouldn't it make more sense to make the destination environment welcoming rather than forbidding?" To be honest, the construction here is thorough enough that even this question gets a little bit of an explanation. Also of note is the mild "society of the spectacle" monologues the stoner character of the group intones early on, which give the film certain implications that it frantically backs away from by way of its lame Master Premise. Finally, it's precisely as deep as it needs to be, which makes it catnip to hipster critics who've read the back cover blurbs of a lot of film theory books, and nothing else.
2) Is "The Cabin in the Woods" funny?
Not laugh-out-loud hilarious but rather consistently (and briskly) witty. The sharp dialogue is well-delivered by old pros Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (if you know these guys, you know they don't play the collegiate archetypes; their characters are best exemplified by the shirtsleeves and black ties they wear), as well as the actors playing the archetypes/would-be-victims, Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz taking first-among-equals prizes there.
3) Is "The Cabin in the Woods" scary?
Not so much, alas. The problem of sending up/critiquing horror movies within the construct of a, well, horror movie is that unless you're some kind of genius, you're dealing with a scenario in which the shocks are a given, and it's therefore difficult to deliver them with the necessary unpredictability. As for actual suspense, there isn't much of that, either. While the picture is, as I said, consistently clever in delivering its various conceptual payoffs, the movie's climax, which can be best described as a compendium of scary tropes, and resembles what I would presume to be the greatest wet dream ever experienced by a lifetime attendee of Comic-Con, is more funhouse scary than spooky or genuinely horrific.
What the movie finally is, then, is a diversion: a reasonably smart and exceptionally well-constructed one. And nothing more. Which might be important to keep in mind. Anyone who tries to tell you that this movie is actually "subversive," by the way, is part of, what they call, the problem. Just so you know.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.