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Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard are very clever.
Clever does not always translate, though, to creating something that engages an audience and that works as a film experience, particularly when you're talking about something that is, at heart, a meta-textual game about the very nature of horror films.
Don't let that worry you. "Cabin In The Woods" is, first and foremost, a wildly entertaining movie that plays off of our collective familiarity with horror tropes, and it delivers the sort of experience that absolutely demands that you see it in a movie theater with as many friends as you can gather. It is fun, it is thrilling and it is smart. If you want an absolutely clean experience without having any of the film's surprises spoiled for you, see it opening weekend and read nothing between now and then, not even the rest of this review. Just rest assured that this is the film that finally translates what Whedon has always done so well on television into a movie that I think works completely on its own terms.
It is almost impossible to discuss the film without giving away some of its secrets, and that's because the film begins revealing them right at the beginning. This is not a movie built around a third-act twist where everything is kept secret until then. The entire structure of the film is built around an ongoing slow-drip of information, and it's really elegant in the way it gives up its pleasures little by little. Even so, I'm going to try to tread lightly here so that you're able to enjoy the film without me denying you some of the best moments I've had in a theater during a horror film in years.
I've never been a huge fan of "Scream" because it felt to me like the film pandered too much, and aside from that undeniably crackerjack opening sequence with Drew Barrymore, the rest of the film is so self-conscious about the ways it tries to bend genre that I could never let myself forget that they were being clever. It kept nudging me in the ribs and winking at me, and by the end, I didn't find anything about the experience enjoyable as more than an exercise.
The opposite is true here. From the film's very opening, we're watching two parallel narrative tracks unfold, and I was equally engaged in both. First, there's the story of Steve (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Bradley Whitford), guys who are starting a fairly routine work day in what appears to be a military style command center. They are mundane, normal, and their conversations are just like the banal chatter in any workplace. How do they relate to Holden (Jesse Williams), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Marty (Fran Kranz), Dana (Kristen Connolly), and Jules (Anna Hutchison), a group of college kids who decide to spend a weekend in the woods together? Well, that's the fun, isn't it?
I don't think it's revealing too much to say that the kids end up facing down a series of incredibly familiar archetypes as they head towards the cabin they're staying in, including the grizzled old man at the gas station who warns them that they'll all die up there. Looking at the trailer, it would be easy to think that this is just reheated stuff we've seen before, but it's more that that. What director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon are up to here is inventing a world in which all of the illogical behavior and archetypical characters we've seen in horror films over the years suddenly make real-world sense. There is a reason for how things play out, and it's not just because characters are stupid.
The film has great fun with the way it checks off items that we expect from these types of films, turning them inside out as they're presented, and if that's all the film did, it would still be fun. Instead, there's a left turn it takes as it heads into the third act that took the film from good to great in my opinion, featuring some moments that I still can't believe I saw in a movie theater.
The cast is all good, totally in tune with the world that Whedon and Goddard are presenting, and on a technical level, the film looks and sounds great. I love cinematographer Peter Deming, and he makes sure that this film looks exactly the way it's supposed to, a heightened reality that pays homage to all the films that inspired it while also feeling very rich and inventive. David Julyan's score is a crash course education in the cliches of horror soundtracks, and that's exactly what it should be.
And if this all seems like a fairly vague review, that's because once you understand the game they're playing, you'll want to see how they deal with each new story point, each familiar bit of iconography. I found myself laughing out loud when I'd realize what they were about to do, and even on the times I guessed where they were going, the way they did it was so much better than I would have hoped. There is a shot that comes late in the film that is one of the single greatest horror movie images I've ever seen, a summation of all the things that live under our beds and in our closets and in our darkest dreams in childhood, and it delighted me on a very pure level beyond analysis.
"Cabin In The Woods" is not just a great horror film, but also a thesis on why we need horror films and what role they serve in our diet. I believe firmly that we require our red meat, and in this case, Whitford and Jenkins are the onscreen avatars for Whedon and Goddard, giving us not only what we want, but what we need, even if we couldn't articulate it ourselves. It is a truly great genre movie, and it is my sincere hope that audiences embrace this, and that it stakes certain threadbare ideas through the heart permanently while inspiring other filmmakers to have pure, unfettered joy in the genre again.
"Cabin In The Woods" opens in theaters Friday, April 13, 2012.
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