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SXSW 2012: 'Cabin in The Woods' ruthlessly mocks horror's oldest cliches

Drew Goddard's "Cabin in The Woods"


Tonight, the 2012 SXSW Film Festival opened with Drew Goddard’s Cabin in The Woods, a film that you’re going to end up seeing on a whole bunch of film geek top-ten lists come December 2012. The buzz surrounding Cabin in The Woods has—let’s be frank—kind of bordered on the hyperbolic, calling it a “masterpiece”, “brilliant”, “worth seeking out immediately in a packed theater”, and a dozen other effusive bits of praise. Well, folks, I can’t help but agree: here’s a film that’s worth the hype. Read on to find out why you need to see Cabin in The Woods immediately, my gentle Examiner readers…

SXSW 2012:  "Cabin in The Woods" opened SXSW 2012

It’s going to be very difficult to make a half-assed horror film in the wake of Cabin in The Woods.

Whether or not Joss Whedon set out to shame shoddy horror filmmaking (and how severe the resulting shaming might be) will be just one of several discussions to be had by audiences who catch Cabin in The Woods when it opens April 13th. Whedon’s script—beautifully translated to the screen by Drew Goddard, who needs to be making more films right this very minute—ruthlessly mocks the conventions of, well, the “cabin in the woods” sub-genre, specifically.

But, really, the “cabin in the woods” sub-genre is just a variation on the “slasher movie” genre: you get a bunch of teens—a jock, a tramp, a nerd, a stoner, and a virgin—into an enclosed space, you have ‘em encounter malevolent forces, and then you have ‘em killed off, one-by-one. The “cabin in the woods” sub-genre adds the “getting directions from a scary local” scene to this list of directives (in addition to making the “enclosed space” a “remote space”, as well), but otherwise they’re virtually the same damn thing. And, again: the satire here is so trenchant, pulled off with such style and with so many effective punchlines, it’s hard to imagine anyone tackling this sub-genre in the future and not being laughed off the screen.

That’s the first thing you need to know about Cabin in The Woods. The second thing is this: you shouldn’t go out of your way to learn anything else about the film prior to seeing it. Don’t watch trailers, don’t read any other reviews (I’m going to go outta my way to make this piece completely spoilerless; tread onward without fear, my friends), and—for the love of God—don’t go reading any message boards, comments sections, Twitter feeds, or Facebook updates written by anyone who’s recently seen the flick. While the film doesn’t feature one, big twist near its conclusion (it does, in fact, lay out much of its behind-the-scenes trickery from its very first scene), it does feature a number of surprises along the way, and seeing how Whedon and Goddard have structured this tale is one of its many pleasures.

Speaking of structure, the entire script-- from the "Wait, what's happening right now?" opening scene all the way through to the "Holy crap, did I really just see that?!" ending-- may be built upon the ruthless mockery of horror's oldest cliches, but the satire never feels like condemnation. The tone is playful, almost light (as light as something with boobies, decapitations, and sometimes-both-at-the-same-time can be), and never points an accusatory finger directly. While there's any number of tired horror franchises and bad horror directors out there that Whedon's script could've targeted, this feels less like an attack and more like one friend breaking another friend's balls.

Let’s discuss the humor, since saying anything about the plot is completely out of the question. WhileCabin in The Woods is being (fairly) marketed as a horror film, it’s also at least 50% comedy, and might even be considered more than that depending on who’s making the call. The audience I saw the film with was laughing throughout, and there were at least half a dozen instances where onscreen dialogue got trampled on by the audience’s sustained laughter. I was prepared for Cabin to be funny, but I’ll confess that it was funnier than I expected it to be (and pleasantly so).

I suppose one could market Cabin in The Woods as a satire, but the problem you’d run into with that is that some people might peg it as one of those Not Another_____ Movie things (those movies, by the way, aren’t fit to scrub Cabin in The Woods’ toilet). In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter: even if you wandered into Goddard’s film expecting a straight-up slasher flick, you’d be too won over by what the film actually is to bother complaining afterwards. Whether you’ve come for the horror, the comedy, or both, you’re going to leave way more than satisfied.

As for the horror content, well, I wouldn’t say that Cabin in The Woods succeeds as a horror film in the traditional “Is it scary?” sense. Then again, being “scary” doesn’t appear to be what’s on this film’s mind, anyway. That said, if you’re wondering whether or not the flick serves up a few gruesome kills, killers, creatures, or the like, be aware that…well, you won’t be disappointed, no matter what sort of horror-genre tropes you’ve come looking for. Let’s just say that—in the end—something for all horror-tastes is made available here.

The performances here are across-the-board great, with relative unknowns Franz Kanz (as the stoner, Marty) and Kristen Connolly (as the virgin, Dana) giving the standout performances. Chris Hemsworth—who can shortly be seen in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, reprising his role from Marvel Comics’ Thor—does some good work here,but it’s worth mentioning that Hemsworth looks noticeably younger here than he does, um, now. There’s a good reason for that, of course-- the film sat on the shelf for two years (more on this in a moment)-- but it’s not a problem. Just strange, and it kind of pulled me out of the movie whenever I find myself noticing it.

Another pair of shout-outs need to be given to Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who play Richard and Steve, respectively. These are two of our best character actors, and they knock their material out of the park in this. I can’t really discuss who “Steve” and “Richard” are without getting into plot details, but I can tell you that I wish these two—and the job they’re doing—were given even more screen time; I could’ve watched the entire story unfold from their point of view. Whitford, in particular, seems to really be enjoying the chance to deliver Whedon’s lines.

Oh, and about that whole “sat on the shelf for two years thing”: generally, when a film sits on the shelf for two years, it means that it’s an absolute trainwreck. A studio doesn’t pump millions of dollars into a film and then do nothing with it because they’re so proud of the final result; they hide a movie on a shelf because they’re well aware of how much people are going to hate and/or mock it. Look no further than this week’s A Thousand Words, which stars the shambling, ghastly corpse of former comedian Eddie Murphy. That thing was locked in a closet somewhere in Burbank for years before being dumped into theaters with little fanfare this weekend, which is usually what happens to films that’ve been “sitting on a shelf”.

With Cabin in The Woods, however, the film’s release (originally slated for February of 2010) was indefinitely pushed when MGM—the film’s original studio—ran into money troubles awhile back. Eventually, someone at Lionsgate set eyes on the flick and realized what kind of untapped gold MGM was sitting on, picked it up, and now they’re gonna put it in theaters. Yes, Lionsgate’s responsible for the annual testicle-punch that was Saw parts 3 through 7 (or wherever they “wrapped it up”), but please don’t hold that against them: in the case of Cabin in The Woods, they’ve done something borderline heroic.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Cabin in The Woods when it opens. Something tells me that this one’s got a really good chance of catching on, of becoming the Scream of a new generation (despite the fact that the films Cabin’s mocking are—for the most part—not ones that belong to this generation), and I bet a whole bunch of people are going to want to talk about the flick as soon as they’ve seen it. Don’t let one of these loudmouths ruin the film for you: do yourselves a favor, and see Cabin in The Woods when it opens on April 13th. Not only will you be getting a headstart on those-that-would-spoil-a-movie-for-you, but you’ll also be supporting a truly outstanding horror-comedy, and that’s the kind of film we need to see a helluva lot more of.

I wish I could say more, but for the time being, that’s all I can say.

My Grade? A-

Stay tuned for more from the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, folks! We're going to have a ton of reviews, interviews, and on-site reports for you over the next week, including looks at 21 Jump Street (click for review), Just Like Being There, V/H/S, The Imposter, the opening of the Mondo Gallery (where we'll have an interview with Mondo creative director Justin Ishmael) and much, much more! Get "Subscribed" up top right now so you don't miss anything else!

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