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Cabin in the woods ****
Directed by Drew Goddard. Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, Amy Acker
US, 2011, 94 mins, cert 15.
Uk release on 13th April from Lionsgate
Cabin in the Woods was actually completed in 2009, a belated release so long after production is usually a bad omen, but in this case the fault is not the film’s fault. There was a silly attempt to post convert the film into 3D and then it became caught in the maelstrom of studio MGM’s financial collapse.
This is a very hard film to review. A film so high concept it is breathing a mixture of Hydrogen and Helium. This presents a challenge to the responsible critic. What to do? I could restrict myself to discussing only what is in the trailer, but even that is too much information. It also wouldn’t be fair to just say, don’t read any reviews, just go and see it. While I think this is an extremely entertaining film, it is going to be absolutely loathed by some of you. It is the job of a review to give you some idea of whether you should spend your hard-earned on a ticket.
I’m going to try and review this film without giving anything away that isn’t on the poster. In doing this I have one thing that is going to help me greatly. While he may not have directed it, Cabin In The Woods bears the unmistakable stamp of Joss Whedon.
Whedon fans, bear with me, the next paragraph is stuff you already know. Whedon comes from a family of TV writers, following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather before him. A major cult figure among genre TV fans, Whedon made his name as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spin off Angel, and the cancelled sci-fi series Firefly and Dollhouse. It’s fair to say that his remaining cult status is likely to evaporate as he is also the director and writer of Marvel’s forthcoming behemoth The Avengers.
Whedon’s best known work revisits common themes and tropes: strong female characters (a constant, even in shows such as Angel and Firefly which feature male leads); humour; specialised hip vernacular; themes of fate, evil, and the individual fighting against oppressive forces; a desire to subvert and play with genre; copious use of pop culture references. Like all genuine cult figures his work is divisive. For every fan who revels in his playful subversion of genre, there is another who sees this as an aggressive attack. Whedon has such a singular voice, that even works that are unconnected to one another seem to inhabit a distinct universe, and one that can seem impenetrable to outsiders.
If you are in the anti camp, this film is going to do nothing to change your mind. All of Whedon’s quirks are present in Cabin in the Woods. In fact I would go so far as to say that this film is überwhedony. If on the other hand you are already a fan (like I am), then proceed straight to the cinema. If you are neither, then you need a little more information.
Directed and co-written by Drew Goddard who is not just a frequent Whedon collaborator but has also worked extensively with that other TV wunderkid J.J. Abrams. Cabin in the Woods is a horror film (of sorts). It takes the near mythic story of a group of attractive young things taking a trip to a remote rustic lodging in a green belt area where unpleasant happenings await. There will be some smoking of illicit herbs. There will be some premarital sex. There may or may not be a basement. This is about as close to a sacred text as you can find in the American horror film. A story so familiar the audience can slip into it like a warm bath. It is no spoiler to say that Whedon and Goddard are not interested in staying on the familiar narrative path. No, they are going to stray far off it, and in the process twist the pillars of convention so completely the result looks like a Monkey Puzzle tree. It’s almost as if Philip K. Dick had been asked to do a rewrite on The Evil Dead.
The cast of Cabin features a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth and relative unknown Kristen Connelly in the lead female role. But Whedon returnee Franz Kranz (Topher from Dollhouse) steals every scene he is in as the group’s prerequisite stoner character. Veteran character actors Richard Jenkins (most recently the only vaguely decent thing in Hall Pass) and Bradley Whitford (of West Wing fame) are superb in roles it is a massive spoiler to even discuss (despite the fact that they appear in the film’s first scene). Whedon fans will also enjoy cameos from regular faces Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse and Whedon’s upcoming version of Much Ado About Nothing) and Tom Lenk (Buffy, Angel, and Much Ado).
This is a seriously funny film. The setting means humour is often reminiscent of last year’s under seen gem Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. There is however a whole different plot-line I’m being careful to avoid talking about that gives Whedon and Goddard another avenue for cracking dialogue. As mentioned Kranz’ stoner character gets many of the best lines, but this is an equal opportunities film, the female characters get to be funny too.
I enjoyed this film a great deal and I can say with certainty that it isn’t quite like anything else you have ever seen, whilst simultaneously being quite a lot like many things you have already seen. I’m not a complete slave to the great god Whedon though, and while the entire film is thoroughly enjoyable, I am not sure the narrative quite hangs together in the second half. There is always the suspicion that Joss Whedon could write a great straight-up genre film if he could just stop feeling the need to constantly explode the genre and put it back together in a shape no-one is familiar with. But I guess he wouldn’t be Joss Whedon if he did that.
There are a great deal of horror references in the film that go beyond being in-jokes and actually are what the film is about. I do question whether this will play to an audience that is not intimately familiar with the horror genre. Like Serenity before it I suspect that Cabin in the Woods is destined to play like gangbusters to Whedon’s fan-base and be somewhat impenetrable to those outside of it.
Sturart Barr. Review first published in FRIGHTFEST the online grene magazine -Read here
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