Monday, April 16, 2012

Don't Read the Latin

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods was originally slated to hit theaters sometime in 2010, and after I saw the film last Friday night I imagined the wait for them to the their film finally released, a hold up caused by MGM’s money troubles, must have been especially grueling. I can’t help but thinking that Goddard and Whedon suspected they really had something here, even if that something was merely a really good time at the movies, which is in any case certainly nothing to sneeze at.

But if what they have is something beyond merely a good time at the movies, what is it exactly? Another thing I thought while watching The Cabin in the Woods was that it would be really nice if talented guys like Goddard and Whedon could make a horror film that wasn’t about the fact that it was a horror film. Or that fewer contemporary filmmakers believed that one of the essential components of a horror film is that it be a comedy. And so on. But in fairness to Goddard and Whedon – Goddard, who directed, co-wrote the film with Whedon, who also produced – they’re really goddamn clever, and, as a result, The Cabin in the Woods is a really goddamn clever movie, one that eventually broke down all – okay, most – of my defenses. Plus, it’s not like it blindsides you with its irony, if that’s really what we’re dealing with here. Contrary to the belief of some people, The Cabin in the Woods is not full of plot twists and reversals. As horror writer and critic Kim Newman has pointed out, it’s not a film with a twist; it’s a film with a premise. The film begins with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, the film’s most powerful weapons, engaging in small talk about fertility and cabinets and so forth while ambling around their vaguely science-y, vaguely governmental, vaguely military workplace. What that workplace is, and what it’s for, is what some people are regarding as a twist, but what must more accurately be regarded as the story the film is telling. In any case, this scene leads to maybe the funniest title card I’ve ever seen, the appearance of which should destroy any illusions you might have about what kind of film, tonally speaking, this is.

Yet while “twist” is the wrong word, I’m still loathe to reveal where the story goes. I mean, why ruin the fun? Myself, I was ultimately very glad to go into this thing cold, as much as possible anyway, and I was also pleased that I saw the film on opening night, since the commercials that have aired on TV since include images I wouldn’t have wanted in my head, anticipating when they’d arrive as I sat there watching the film. So if you haven’t seen the film, I don’t know what to tell you, other than marketing sucks, I guess. But where the story begins, after the Whitford/Jenkins prologue, is with five post-graduate students – a stoner (Fran Kranz), a blonde, party-ish type girl (Anna Hutchison), a smart jock (Chris Hemsworth), another smart jock who is I guess less of a jock than the other one (Jesse Williams), and our heroine (Kristen Connolly), the more demure of the two females, who is not actually a virgin but who will eventually find herself behaving, to her surprise, as though she was – heading out on vacation to a cabin, which is in the woods, belonging to Hemsworth’s cousin. On their way there they meet a creepy and rude gas station attendant (Tim de Zarn) who lets fly with some smirking warnings about the cabin – he’s one of those characters who will warn you that you’re heading towards your doom but will not hide the fact that he’s kind of hoping you don’t listen to him – and you, the audience, are quite aware that you’ve seen all this before, and since the scenes with the young folk are given, at this stage, no particular spin or, I don’t know, spark, it’s hard to not hope that the curious Jenkins/Whitford stuff, which has by now begun to sprinkle itself throughout the proceedings, turns out to be something at least a little bit novel.

Well, good news, because it does. I don’t think it’s revealing too much, and anyway I don’t know how I could continue with this review without making note of this, that Whitford and Jenkins’ job is, and the whole governmental-esque facility where they work exists to, plan, control and orchestrate the horror film mayhem that is about to befall our young heroes, and to do so with a very conscious understanding of the tropes and clichés that surround the other, very different kind of movie that is transpiring in that cabin in the woods. So yes, it’s like that, but it’s a good thing that it’s like that. The Whitford/Jenkins material (and it’s not just them, Amy Acker is there, too, and is very good, as is Brian White as a military man whose burgeoning conscience adds a bit of heft to the whole thing) serves to save the cabin material, which if anything can occasionally threaten to become too self consciously by-the-numbers. This is by design, but is also, practically by definition, potentially enervating. It teeters on the edge, at least, and the Whitford/Jenkins stuff is sometimes called on to steer everything away from the precipice, which it very ably does by virtue of having all the best jokes, and also all the intrigue, mystery, and inventiveness the cabin scenes intentionally lack.

About jokes, briefly. The Cabin in the Woods is a funny movie, occasionally very funny, but I'd like to pick a nit or two. There are two kinds of jokes that bug me which The Cabin in the Woods engages in. Not egregiously, but enough to make me want to bring it up. One is the kind where one character will say something that no one would ever say just so another character can deliver the punchline. This kind of strained set-up/knock down is what I shall now refer to as the Social Network Gershwin Joke. The other kind bothers me a little bit more, because it means a good joke gets diminished. What happens in The Cabin in the Woods is Bradley Whitford is given a terrific throwaway line that turns out to not be a throwaway. Goddard and/or Whedon believe, and many other writers agree, that everything must be paid off eventually, so the terrific throwaway is forced to build to something else. And it doesn't even build to anything great. If I told you the line, and gave you some context, you could predict what the payoff will be. Meanwhile, the great throwaway has to now be looked at askance. This is a little bit like the need to explain everything in a horror film, or remove the mysterious dread. It's not quite the same as explaining a joke, curiously enough, but like horror movie explanations it restricts the audience's imagination, which is part of what makes the original, now only onstensibly, throwaway so funny. This is, in fact, my one big gripe about Shaun of the Dead, a film I otherwise adore.

But in the end that's okay, because The Cabin in the Woods has a lot more to offer. This is a stretch, but what they're going for here is not entirely unlike what Poe was after with "Premature Burial." I don't want to make too much of this, because that would be ridiculous, and I suspect I'm only making the connection because Poe has been on my mind due to the pending release of that, I can only assume, piece of horse-, bull-, and dogshit The Raven, but anyway, in that story Poe essentially sketched out the psychology of the horror genre, and laid bare why he wrote the kinds of stories he wrote. It's possibly his masterpiece, and in that sense, the sense of weight and power and all that, it's nothing at all like The Cabin in the Woods. But Goddard and Whedon sort of are trying to encapsulate modern horror and its hold on us within this one crazy little movie. In doing so, they sometimes slip under the weight of their ambition -- for instance, some of the references to other horror films are very general, while one or two are off-puttingly specific, such as one to Bryan Bertino's The Strangers that is so precisely about that movie that for a little while The Cabin in the Woods starts to feel like a spoof -- but their film shouldn't be written off as a goof. It's deeply thought-out, if not especially deep itself. And besides, if nothing else, it's a really good story, well told, one that only gets more interesting and satisfying as it goes along. The answer to the question of what this is all in aid of is one of my favorite things about The Cabin in the Woods. How often can anyone say that?


John said...

I like your description of the throwaway line that wasn't, as well as the broader criticism it serves. You even got me fretting over it, and I have no idea when I might see this movie.

bill r. said...

Well, try to not stress about it. That's the last thing I wanted out of all this.

StephenM said...

See, I really liked that not-quite-a-throwaway line. I totally fell for it, for one thing, but I also thought the pay-off was really pretty swell. I liked the blowhole. (I'm not sure what the other joke you're referring to is--I'm not even sure what the Gershwin joke is from The Social Network.)

Otherwise, I mostly agree--a ton of fun, not super deep, occasionally threatened to lose emotional connection, but ultimately did what it was supposed to do. Though I do question the point at the end about punishing them because they're young. The main audience for slasher movies is and has always been young people, so I really don't think a desire to see the young punished is the reason those movies are popular.

Bryce Wilson said...

I will quibble that I have already gone back for seconds and the No longer a throwaway remains funny (He had the Conch in his hand!) underwhelming payoff or no.

Oddly enough I thought the Strangers quote worked pretty well because it was played more or less straight (watching blank faced people soak a man in gasoline and light him on fire will always be disturbing, at least I hope so) but I did think the Hellraiser callback crossed the line if only because of how awkward the saw blades looked.

I pretty much love the film unreservedly but I have to admit that part of that may be because half way through I just started pretending that someone had given Joe Dante a budget again... That last twenty minutes was beautiful.

PS. As for The Gershwin joke syndrome, I guess I am too Whedon inoculated to notice, but that call and response style is a big part of his style. You might have a hard time at The Avengers is what I am saying.

bill r. said...

StephenM - I can't remember the SOCIAL NETWORK joke verbatim, but essentially two characters are listening to a choral group singing Gershwin songs, and one says something like "Why can't we have some good love songs?" and the other says "Because Gershwin never wrote love songs?" This isn't a very good approximation of the joke, but the sticking point is the first person knows Gershwin, as the scene makes clear, but isn't aware of the kind of songs he was famous for writing, so that the weak punchline can be delivered. In CABIN, I can't remember what the joke was, but there was at least one like this.

As for punishing them because they're young, I can't say I took that to be the point of anything. I know the theory has been pushed by not too bright people about the appeal of slasher films, but I'm not sure CABIN, which does allude to it, takes it seriously.

bill r. said...

Bryce - Glad to hear the throwaway still works, which I assumed it would, but I will be sad when I watch it next to know that it won't end there.

As for the call/response thing, my problem isn't the structure. It's when the seams are showing, or splitting, as in the Gershwin joke. But those jokes can be funny, as any kind of joke can be.

sleepyirv said...

I sorta dislike the third act. I felt it was one joke that went on and on. I understand that it worked for a lot of people so I won't rag on it too hard but I just wanted to get back to someone, anyone to make some one-liners.

Stacia said...

I was actually a little sad to see the throwaway line NOT a throwaway line, though I think it ultimately worked, but the throwaway line was hilarious without any kind of payoff.

The audience for our viewing was very animated, almost agitated. One guy in the front was having the time of his life, laughing at everything hysterically. My husband practically vibrated with anticipation when those boxes showed up in the 3rd act. Everyone seemed genuinely impressed with the thermos. But one teen girl was acting out in the way teen girls do when they think being paid attention will fix whatever problem they are having, eventually yelling at the film itself throughout the finale. When does this behavior cease being teen angst and turn into frank emotional disability?

It's possible this comment will be a little too spoilery, but I wanted to address something Bryce said:


I didn't think it was particularly awkward because it involved Hellraiser, Saw, and Phantasm all in one fell swoop. That's the kind of thing I find hilarious.

bill r. said...

sleepyriv - You didn't think the one-liners needed to give way to something else? Hell, I thought the third act made the whole movie.

bill r. said...

stacia - One of the problems with expanding the joke beyond a throwaway is that it becomes redundant. Even the visual payoff is kind of redundant. The great thing about the line, isolated from what came after, is that, apart from being weird and funny, it gives you some idea of the mindset you might develop working at a place like that. The things about the job that are interesting, etc.

Ah. I'm starting to explain the joke, which is never a good sign. I just wish they'd let it be, is all.

And despite seeing this with a young crowd, I did not experience anything like the psychological breakdown you describe. A couple of asshole texters, but that's it.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Regarding da yoof: It's true that much of the slasher film audience is young. But then, not even old people hate pretty young people as much as other, slightly less pretty young people. Either way, that theory is presented by our Celebrity Cameo as a "maybe", so I wouldn't make too much of it. More interesting is...


...the film's larger conceit of slasher movies as continuing the tradition of sacrifices to the volcano. Comparing CABIN to the SCREAM series is obvious, but I think CABIN proves itself much smarter; SCREAM points out that horror movies have conventions (duh), but CABIN asks what purpose those conventions serve. Like any really good piece of criticism, it 's a lens for thinking about lots of other movies, accounting for the weird detachment of 80s slasher flicks and the beautiful lethargy of 70s Eurohorror. The idea of the slasher movie as a ritual is a wonderfully descriptivist accounting for the genre's conventions, and really intriguing for this Richard Schechner fan. And the finale is a marvelous update on Lovecraft---the idea that all our visible earthly horrors are mere harbingers of the Great Cosmic Horror that cannot be seen.