Five characters in search of a killer
Five friends drive into a forest; among the trees stands a little house.
You could almost see where this is going--cue shadowy outline of twisted figures shambling through forest's edge, dragging heavy rusted implements behind them--only that's not where the film was going, not initially; initially we have two men (Peter Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) driving an electric cart down a long hallway, sipping their coffee mugs and talking morning-office chat. Suddenly the words “CABIN IN THE WOODS” in huge block red letters drop down on the screen with a huge crash, and just as quickly vanish.
In the audiences I've sat with the moment almost always gets a big “Huh?” One companion whispered to me “hope the rest isn't going to be as cheesy as that.” I remember someone behind me muttering “Worst movie ever.”
Then the story proper starts (Camera crane swooping from ground to second floor, catching Kristen Connolly at her apartment window, in underwear), and everyone quiets down--nothing like a beautiful girl in panties to capture one's attention. We meet in succeeding order the Virgin, her friend the Slut, her boyfriend the Jock, his friend the Nerd; the Clown (Fran Kranz, channeling a spacier version of his Topher character in Whedon's Dollhouse) arrives last, wielding a three-foot long bong that collapses into a coffee mug with snap-on handle (Where can you get one? I want one). From their chit-chat we learn they are planning a road trip, to a remote homestead in some far-off wilderness.
So far so familiar...only a man in black wearing an earphone has been monitoring their conversation, and the film keeps cutting back to the two men seen earlier on their electric cart, now walking up to a highly secured control room, with surveillance cameras that look into...the five youths' cabin in the woods.
Welcome to Joss Whedon's latest brainchild, his answer to the question “whither now, horrorshow?” In his opinion (an opinion I happen to share), the horror movie is all tapped out; horror nowadays is mostly half-naked teenagers being pinned down and violated and tortured repeatedly, endlessly, the only variation involving the method of torment and means of death.
Pizza-making, says I. Horror in movies, at least in the better examples, has traditionally been the art of transferring one's fears from the screen into one's head (where they can fester all night, developing all kinds of interesting flavors) with as little effort as possible, showing us as little of the process as possible, letting the audiences' collectively shivering minds do most of the work for us. Alfred Hitchcock was a master; so to a less prolific extent was Roman Polanski. The list of other masters is not a long one.
Nowadays the 'art' has devolved into mere pizza-making--basically using one's production budget to create as many and as diverse a number of pizza toppings as possible (pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham, bacon, chopped vegetables, pineapple, anchovies) to scatter on and around your fake corpse. Add plenty of freshly made tomato sauce and melted cheese, and you're good.
That's pretty much where the genre is at the moment. Eli Roth's Hostel pictures pushed said scenes to pornographic extremes while promoting xenophobia (those sadistic Eastern Europeans!) and, in the sequel's final minutes, cynical class warfare (if you have the plastic you can buy your way out); the Final Destination movies turned death into a series of intricate Rube Goldberg sequences, where the chief pleasure is in trying to predict from what direction the blow will come, and how; the Saw franchise took the cliche--mechanically baroque death manipulated by mad genius--and (in a shameless bit of hypocrisy bordering on genius) turned it into a demented therapy session, forcing the victim to either resolve his particular personality failure or die trying.
The genre found itself on the slippery slope of diminishing returns, at the end of which lay the Wayan Brothers' Scary Movie parodies--four as of last count, of increasingly poor quality (the Wayans wisely left after the first two); a fifth installment was announced some three years back, and is still (knock on wood) in development hell.
Whedon takes the genre by the back of its scruffily disreputable neck and gives it a few good shakes. This is a movie where all the classic ingredients are in place (five gullible kids; a gorgeous but isolated location; the classic Southern hillbilly (the wonderful Tim de Zarn) intoning prophecies of doom) yet what happens doesn't all go according to formula. Whedon shows affection for these tired conventions, but doesn't try sugarcoat them--if anything, he uses their familiar quality to leap into the unknown, into far more imaginative (and for me, more productive) directions.
Difficult to say what those directions are. Problem with movies nowadays is that there is so much demand for product--for teasers and trailers and cast interviews that reveal entirely too much--that no movie twist ever comes as a complete surprise (the fact that I'm writing about such a surprise is already a dead giveaway).
That said, one can know details about Whedon's script (co-written by Whedon alumnus and film's director Drew Goddard) and still enjoy just how expertly and effectively this one is put together--how, for example, we learn that the Jock isn't just a jock, and still make the moment quietly amusing (“Where did you learn about all this stuff?” “From you, okay? I learned it from watching you!”); or how the characters allude to parallel action taking place elsewhere (“We might as well tell Japan to take the rest of the weekend off.” “Yeah, right. They're Japanese. What'll they do--relax?”); or later how Whedon suggests the dawning of understanding in some minds, the lack of same in others (“Puppeteers...” “Pop Tarts? Did you say you have Pop Tarts?”). There's even a moment set aside for expressing the views of what I'm guessing is Whedon's favorite candidate for most blatant and consistent evil, the conscientious administrator (“This is all most unpleasant. I know you can hear me. I hope you'll listen”). Plus a moment of plain and simple humanity (“I'm sorry I almost shot you. I probably wouldn't have”).
Whedon displays a fanboy's love for the classic genres--the western (Firefly), the horror flick (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel; this picture), the science fiction dystopia (Firefly; Dollhouse), the same time he shows a gift for goosing said genres, taking their overfamiliar conventions and sending them spinning in startling new directions. He's on record as saying this is his attempt to revitalize the horror film--a noble sentiment, I'm sure.
I doubt if the film will revitalize much, unfortunately; the genre--at least the subgenre of 'cabin in the wood' horror--has sunk too low, I think, grown too repetitive, too tired. What the picture has done instead is hammer in the last nail of the coffin (“I come to bury Caesar, not praise him”). This isn't Whedon's attempt at resuscitation so much as it is his final tribute, his sendoff and farewell.
I know there are hints of a possible sequel, but Whedon attempts one at his peril--can a sequel do justice to what's already been done? Can it deliver as much fresh wit, as many new ideas? Can we, if the answer to both be negative, leave well enough alone? This is the 'cabin in the woods' picture to end all 'cabin in the woods' pictures--or at least is of sufficient quality to allow the subgenre to end on a fairly respectable note. Please, Lord, can we let it rest in peace?
First published in Businessworld, 5.3.12