Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cabin in the Woods: Trying Too Hard and Hardly Satisfying

Last Friday, after years of delays and secrecy, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s highly anticipated Cabin in the Woods was released in theaters.

Delayed due to financial issues at its original home, MGM, the film had an uphill battle making it to multiplexes. MGM originally pushed the release back, citing that they wanted to convert the film to 3D – Whedon and Goddard were vocal in not wanting the conversion to be done. Then, when the studio filed for bankruptcy and the film was shelved. Finally, last year Lionsgate picked up the film and firmly set an April 2012 release date.

What was unleashed on audiences is more a send up of the old cabin in the woods horror films like The Evil Dead and Cabin Fever than a straight out horror film. Whedon, who co-wrote with Goddard -- the film's director, is no doubt one of the marquee names attached to the film thanks to his rabid fanbase. The writers have taken the basic premise that has been seen time and again – a group of friends, all very much horror movie archetypes, visit the titular cabin for a weekend of fun and debauchery. What they didn’t plan on is being attacked by a family of torturous zombies (they aren’t just regular zombies, you see). Acting as a group of voyeurs with the ability to pull the strings on the co-eds is a shadow underground group who are working to stop the end of the world from happening.

“Cabin” has a promising set up; take a well tread horror subgenre and turn it on its head. There’s even plenty of good execution here. But you are going to know what’s happening before it does, thanks to the film’s less than subtle filmmaking. Had the film ended about 15 minutes earlier it would have actually left a better taste in my mouth. Once the surviving characters discover the shadow organization, things quickly go downhill devolving into an all-out shit show (WARNING: minor spoilers) as various mythical creatures and monsters go on a rampage against the group that has controlled them. A surprise cameo by Sigourney Weaver, however, is a welcome inclusion – though she seems to be taking a page from Blair Brown’s wardrobe and acting on “Fringe.”

With a running time of just 95 minutes, the film is short even by horror film standards. Trying to pack in the additional punch of a shadow conspiracy, “Cabin” isn’t left with enough time to fully develop any of the characters past their well-known horror cliché. The only feeling the audience can except to gain for the characters is due to the well-cast actors, all virtual unknowns when filming occurred back in 2009. The delay in release will actually serve the film well with increased profiles by Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) and Jesse Williams (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy).

But with any good film, regardless of the genre, in order to get audiences fully invested they need to be rooting for the characters. Even the stoner (played by Fran Kranz), who is supposed to serve as comic relief throughout, actually walks the line that could easily make him grating on some viewers. The stoner/fool character is usually a supporting or minor character (i.e. Randy in the Scream series) for a reason. Bringing them to the forefront can be a little too much of a good thing, as it were.

Speaking of the “Scream” series, which most critics have seemed unable to leave out of their reviews for “Cabin in the Woods.” The horror franchise made its name by examining the slasher film conventions, but when the latest entry, Scream 4, was released it was criticized for being too meta. The same can be said here, which doesn’t hide its meta-ness. The shadow organization, and more specifically the puppet masters played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, is a not so subtle nod at the audience. The subtext is that they are giving us what we want to see. After all, films that are being targeted here wouldn’t be made if we didn’t buy tickets to see them right? Does “Cabin” actually give us what we want to see? That’s a question that is still to be answered.

“Cabin in the Woods” seems to want its cake and eat it too. It is marketed as a horror movie, but wants t0 be known as a comedy. Perhaps that is the film’s problem. It is unable to maintain a tone, whether it be a darkly comedic one or as a thriller. This is no doubt due, at least in part, to Whedon who has previously walked the line on TV’s Buffy, the Vampire Slayer among others.

When leaving a showing last night, I asked a friend whether she would have liked the film as much if Joss Whedon has been an uncredited co-writer. She refused to answer the question directly, rather suggesting that the film wouldn’t have turned out the same had he not been on the film. Many of those who are pre-disposed to the Whedon-verse will love the film, but is that enough to make it mainstream hit worthy of the hype and buzz that came prior to release?