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I like horror movies. Actually, I used to love them, even to the extent where, in fifth or sixth grade, I began to write a history of the horror genre in book form. Around seventh or eighth grade, I grew out of my obsession, not exactly because my tastes had been broadened, but because the genre was quickly getting old. A genre that once could reflect social anxieties and also be a lot of fun had turned into something cynical, cruel, and, worst of all, really boring. With the advent of torture porn, the new extreme horror movies did not seem to change much of anything; they just made it gorier. Yes, you had your exceptions like Saw and Scream 4, films that worked on a postmodern level that either explored human nature or the industry itself, and those were great. Neither, however, were really game changers. They could be clever, even great, but were just short of actually revitalizing an ironically dying genre. At least, not in the last decade or so. (You could argue, definitely, that the first Scream in 1996 was a game changer.) But, here we are, in 2012, and while every other studio is rebooting, remaking, and sequeling horror movies to death, Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) and Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield) have something entirely new up their sleeves. Something that, while perhaps part of the postmodern meta-humor fad, is actually something different. Something fun, something funny, something terrifying, and something brilliant… this way comes. And it is also something I cannot really divulge.
Your five gloriously stupid young pretty people, your usual archetypes, are headed to, as the title suggests, a cabin in the woods. You have your alpha-male (Chris Hemsworth, pre-Thor), your sex-pot (Anna Hutchinson), your guy-who-actually-smokes-pot (Fran Kranz), your attractive bookish type (Jesse Williams), and your virgin (Kristen Connolly). Behold! The five most overused archetypes in the horror genre ever! All lines up and ready to be slaughtered. Not much else needs to be said about the fates of these poor pretty people, but terror ensues as these unwise people do stupid things, just as the audience predicts.
You know that feeling where you kind of relish the terrible fates of the pretty people in the horror films you watch and enjoy? Schadenfreude, the German expression that translates as “the pleasure from the misfortune of others”? Well, Whedon and Goddard feel it too. However, they seem to have gotten bored with the usual tropes and clichés; but they also seem to be fascinated why we love the stuff, even if it gets old, boring, and stupid. If Michael Heneke (director of the German art house horror film Funny Games) and Wes Craven (Scream) had a film baby, The Cabin in the Woods would probably be it. It is equal parts a derisively hilarious deconstruction of the horror genre (a bit broader than the Scream series, which deconstructs slasher films specifically), and an analytical exploration as to why we, the sadistic audience, love every minute of it.
The acting is not bad at all. For what it needs to be, the acting is clever, which is greatly aided by the fact that the characters, while intentional carbon copy archetypes taken from the Book of Character Archetypes for Movies, are smart. Sometimes they do the idiotic things we, the audience, expect them to do, and sometimes they do something a little smarter. And we have Richard Jenkins (the Visitor) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) in the film too, which is pretty great.
The film wink-winks so often to the audience that, if the film were a person with eyes, they would need a very strong prescription for contacts. Even with the incessant postmodern level of construction, the film still remains, to some extent, unpredictable. The humor is devilish and hits you in a place one does not usually expect, but in an extreme jovial level, and in a way that, after you realize you are laughing (hysterically, in my case), you kick yourself a little because you feel like you should have expected the film to toy with you in this way.
Michael Heneke’s Funny Games is a cruel, merciless look at why audiences love horror movies, but the film’s extreme realism and self-satisfied laugh (and the fact that the villains break the fourth wall) make the director just as complicit in the enjoyment of the violence as the audience. Heneke rubs your face in it in a mean spirited way. Goddard and Whedon, however, have a similar treatment, but they ease it up so that they are laughing right along with you. Craven, in all his nightmarish genius, deconstructs a specific sub-genre of horror and does it well. Goddard and Whedon broaden the spectrum and seem to concentrate more on critiquing the voyeurism itself when watching horror movies. What Cabin does that Funny Games does not is fully admit that they love the stuff just as much as the audience that has come to see the carnage. It ends up being the product of two filmmakers who have become so bored with the tropes and clichés; they decide to make a change. Written by a couple of fans for millions of fans.
In a nice way, the film works as criticism of the genre and of the audience, but sans the pretentiousness that a film with these themes would have done. From making the broad generalizations about the horror genre and its over trodden tropes to making very specific allusions, Goddard and Whedon go back and use some of what we have seen before and tests to see if it still scares us. And when they know that it really doesn’t anymore, they high five and push it further, really asking why we audiences keep coming back. What makes it work? What is it about horror films that lead the audience to sadistically cackle at innocent people’s deaths? Thankfully, the two do not force an answer down the audience’s throats either and leave it to the viewer to decide.
After all this praise, how did I feel about the film? I loved it. It has been a very long time since I have seen a horror movie that made me laugh as hard as I did (manically, for that matter), make me jump as high as I did (a good foot in the air), and test me intellectually as much as it did. That is not to say the film is snobby or pretentious, just that it raised questions and asserted ideas that made the audience think both about the genre and about themselves. And it’s a film that is far less cynical than most of the meta-horror films that have been released recently (such as Scream 4). It was the most fun I have had at the movies in a long time.
The Cabin in the Woods can be thought of in two ways: as a very fun horror movie that is very clever in its deconstruction of the genre, or a very smart analysis and piece of criticism, both of the audience and of the genre itself. Deconstructing and criticizing are different things: Scream can deconstruct the slasher genre and fancy it up, but to criticize it, it had to point out how boring it really got and all of its errors and mistakes. Funny Games merely criticized, and maybe laughed in the faces of, the audiences who took pleasure in violence in film. The Cabin in the Woods is a kinder, but just as intelligent play on the two, able to stand on its own where, arguably, my comparison of Cabin to the two films is completely inessential to this review. (But, it is too late, so whatever.) Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have directed and written a meta-masterpiece, capable of being smart without being snarky, scary without being cliché-ridden (not in the same way, at least), and funny without being stupid. The Cabin in the Woods might be, might be, the horror film to end all horror films of the last decade. That last comment is probably hyperbolic on my part, but Cabin is the first film in a very long time to send shivers down my spine, make me laugh hysterically, and exercise my intellectual acumen: all at the same time. The Cabin in the Woods is fun, frightening, and fantastic.
Grade: A





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