Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Cabin in the Woods - review

2011 (USA)

Contains mild spoiler.

Now I've given it a few days since I watched this and I'm still not sure what I make of the whole thing. Yes it's hugely enjoyable, yes the twist, which I'd actually describe as more of an extra narrative reality has a wow factor and is hugely absorbing, yes the script is fun and dark and imaginative and the characters are interesting and well acted; it's just for all it sets out to play with and challenge the genre, it still ultimately relies on clichéd tropes and may not actually other than for the thing be quite as original or ground breaking as it claims to be. Let's make one thing abundantly clear right from the off though, The Cabin in the Woods is a very good film.

It comes with quite the high profile and expectations. Written and produced by Joss Whedon (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer) and written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), they claim they set out to produce a film that was a response to how they perceived horror was losing its way and devolving more and more towards endless rehashed sadistic torture porn flicks. They wanted something that was evocative of how horror used to be and yet also something that would breathe new life and revitalise a tired genre.

On the one side it's still just the usual horror narrative of five kids heading for an isolated cabin, unlocking an ancient evil then fighting for their lives; it's all been done before; but it's supposed to echo what has done before; but it's still what's been done before. See the dilemma? Let's push this philosophical wrangle aside for one moment. The base narrative follows the old horror staples closely, but it's still presented to a very high standard. The kids are both formulaic and ever so slightly interesting enough that you kind of hope they survive but don't actually mind when they are brutally picked off one by one. The Buckner family of zombies are foreboding, dark and menacing and present a genuinely frightening evil force. The Cabin in the Woods does a great job of instilling tension, fear and a feeling of utter hopelessness for the kids; it's a true horror experience it's just we've kind of seen it all before.

But we had to have seen it all before; if in itself it was too fresh and original the second higher narrative wouldn't have quite the same impact. You see the kids have been guided to the cabin and their fate by an ambiguous group of global and secret technicians that are doing this  as it's part of an ancient ritual to placate old and ancient gods from destroying mankind. In full Truman Show style all that befalls the kids in the cabin is relayed to the lab who ensure customs are adhered to and deaths are met in the correct order. For all Whedon and Goddard claimed this as a challenge and a clever parody to the snuff generation; as the method of their deaths are announced to rapturous applause, and as the final kids are brutally slaughtered on a big screen in the background to champagne and partying at the thought the ritual has been a success and the world is saved, one couldn't help think well, it's still just snuff and sadistic voyeurism, just cleverly done snuff and sadistic voyeurism. I should say though that these are really great evocative scenes.

The lab technicians Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford) play the operation like two old tired regular Joes and the set up feels like an underground military bunker full of bureaucracy and hierarchy gone out of control. As the operators start to realise the ritual has not quite gone according to plan and two of the kids have not only managed to survive the Buckner zombies but found their way down to the facility the film in an explosion of eye candy and absurdity smashes the up till now two distinct environments and worlds together. As they fall deep below the surface in an ethereal glass elevator, Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz) come face to face with all the possible horrors that could have been unleashed on the cabin and on reaching the base manage to release them on the unsuspecting technicians and guards. At this point Whedon and Goddard let anything go; as Romero zombies, ghosts, aliens, mermen, evil unicorns, werewolves all run amok bringing carnage and death, and we're gifted to an overload of gore, brutality, action and sheer bat-craziness.

It's a hard film to pigeon hole and I'm still not sure whether it's a comedy, parody, sadistic horror, action adventure or even existential exploration; it's not so much genre redefining but genre undefining. It's a mishmash and for me it works brilliantly. Browsing popular opinion it seems to have really polarised people; I've read that it's the smartest horror film in years, ground-breaking and a game changer and I've also read it's absurd, silly, nonsensical and not even a horror. Whilst I can't really disagree with any of this I will stand by my opening lines that it's still bloody good stuff.

I should perhaps detail the zombies a bit more. The Buckner family zombies are a different enemy to the western Romero-esque zombies that are unleashed on the lab at the end. The Buckners are a darker, more sadistic weapon wielding bunch that seem more aware than your typical undead. They are unleashed on the cabin when Dana reads their history from an ancient book and we learn they were a family sect that revelled in the use of torture and death to test their faith Unlike the flesh desired by the traditional zombies the Buckners seem only interested in the kids brutal sadistic deaths and they reminded me a little of Fulci's zombies from City of the Living Dead.

Even if the idea of someone watching or helping to orchestrate the actions of the unwitting either metaphysically or in this case more physically has been done before The Cabin in the Woods has still done it in an original, absorbing and clever way.  In playing across so many genres they do successfully engineer something entirely new even if I have no idea what to make of it and for all the craziness they do somehow manage to hold it altogether to produce a coherent overarching narrative that works. Yes the first part of the film was trite and cliché but it had to be and sometimes there's a reason old fables are retold. The Cabin in the Woods is mad, crazy, original and yet full of familiarity and references to iconic moments from horror lore. It's indefinable, totally captivating and brilliant, 8/10.

One thing to note. This Blu-ray is coded LGB94935B and the B is very important. Technicolor the disc manufacturer shipped a bad batch to the whole of Europe and had to reissue it. The original copies were recalled but check your copy if you're buying outside the main resale channels and think you're getting a bargain.


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