Monday, July 2, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods Double Dip

Of course I'm giving The Cabin in the Woods the Double-Dip treatment: it's impossible to review properly without spoiling all the fun you'd have watching it. This time out, I'll be more in-depth, and I'm warning you that SPOILERS follow right after the jump. Let's get to it.

The start of the film quickly reveals that something bad is going on, and that our protagonists are in for a really bad ride. The opening, then, disorients the audience - we're being introduced to this world, but in a way that will only make sense as time passes. You'll only understand a fraction of the office talk, but it does not bode well.

It's very bold writing. From the outset, Cabin split its time between the teens who are going on a weekend trip and a group of office workers. Those short-sleeves and tie-wearing workers are familiar, but they feed us information about what's really going on. Mercifully, the conversations aren't all exposition ("you mean, X, our company that runs the..."). It's fairly "natural."

This element, though, is responsible for making The Cabin in the Woods much less scary than I thought it would be. And it makes this genuinely smart movie also a little dumb, in a practical sense.

Two of my favorite reviewers, Mike and Jay of Red Letter Media fame, dedicated part of a Half in the Bag review to Cabin. Mike said that the movie "doesn't make a lick of sense," and he's right. Both he and Jay, however, said they enjoyed it immensely, and that plot holes don't diminish the experience. I agree.

the cast talks about the film's strengths.

As to stupidity: for one thing, it makes no sense for secret agencies (?) all over the world to commit ritualistic, supernatural murder. The rules of this murder trap make no sense, though I do appreciate that they claim to give these people "a chance" at surviving. But they actually claim that like it sounds less cruel.

Yet, they never tell people that they've been chosen to die to save the whole world (and maybe off them, anyway, if they refuse). Nope, they put people into mortal terror right before they're horribly killed. You just saw your girlfriend's head get chopped off and thrown at you, and you're next. Nothing decent about that...

And, surely, so many people die every day - couldn't those folks be used to satiate "The Old Ones?" Or, y'know, just contact someone who's already going to kill the required people (their archetypes - athlete, brain, tramp, virgin...); I'm sure evil dictators and serial killers want the world to go on, too...

It's even worse when you realize that the kids are so heavily manipulated. They've apparently been drugged for a week before the trip, stuff that makes them less intelligent, more aggressive, more likely to die. They get to that damn cabin, where drugs are pumped into the air. Any illusion of decency can't hold up.
yeah, we write the game as much as we have to but in the end, if they don't transgress they can't be punished.
The above quote is total bullsh--, although it is still a neat line.

If these people have to die, then why not just kill them - since that also works, as the final minutes suggest. Also, how does a sacrifice in Japan reach the same demon (?) that can be appeased in the US or Norway? It's not even clear if it's the same demon, or why satisfying one satisfies them all. They're referred to in the plural, so we must assume there are multiple monsters around... Don't they all want blood?

How is the Japanese demon, that wants a room full of schoolgirls (or possibly the whole school?), satisfied by the American sacrifice of a jock, a slut, an athlete - oh, f it, basically a college-age Breakfast Club?

Of course, the haunted-house-death-trap here serves a deeper, writer-ly purpose: to play with concepts of ritual and sacrifice. If you're raised Catholic, you face the sacrament of Confirmation - the day when a young person chooses to be part of the religion, approving the Baptism that occurred when they were just infants.

But, as I know from experience, you're still just a kid and you don't really have much of a choice. Neither do these teens. Ritual is all about following some sort of rules

And it isn't any different if you're slaughtering an animal for Zeus or burning incense for some other god. Most religions require some kind of death, change, or loss. It's just that these poor kids are treated far less respectfully. Simply think about the fact that only one sacrifice needs to work - how many people were cruelly sent to a premeditated slaughter on that one day?

So how can this movie still be "smart?" Some of these problems feel like light-to-moderate oversights in the storytelling, not like the work of filmmakers who are sloppy or don't respect the audience. That's the real dividing line. As odd as the foreign murder traps were, the quick cuts to the Japanese J-horror were fantastic and dead funny. And, despite its flaws, Cabin provides great food for thought.

One idea I had during the film is that we're actually watching some sort of super-powerful religious cult. Maybe they run the world, or maybe they've convinced governments that this is simply "the cost" of keeping the world going. Almost any natural disaster, mass death, or catastrophe might be explained by this group and their actions; maybe the great London fire happened because they didn't use a controlled location for their sacrifice.

I very much wish the movie played around with those ideas. Since it decided to show so much that it wasn't scary, it could've gone all the way and delved more deeply into sacrifice and ritual, and this odd organization. I think these idea are... neat, and interesting.

Still, the ensemble cast is fun. They're used in a way that's classic 80's-era horror, yet details or vibes come in from all over the place: the setting combines with the cast in an obvious connection to Cube's sadistic, high-powered death-trap-with-rules concept; since the characters aren't very developed, Cabin threatens to become too much like Alien 4's misused cast. The humor, good acting, and uniqueness on display are what save it from being boring or typical.

It deserves repeating - that premise (full synopsis here) is really, really impressive. Whedon's work is amazing, as Joss' take on completely-simulated group experiences and elaborate deceptions predates some ideas in Nolan's Inception. The concept of "people who quietly keep the world going" is also tackled in The Replacement Bureau - which, again, came after Cabin. The 2000's had a few of these, sure, but they weren't much good.

Of course, I'm not here to give Goddard and Joss fan-boy adoration. I'm simply saying that this picture was ahead of its time, at least a bit. Lionsgate's failed push for 3-D conversion artificially-delayed Cabin until it was like the 7th pic to do this, instead of the 3rd. Lord knows, I think Joss' Dollhouse was airing at the time, so a 2010 Cabin release might've helped boost the Fox show's ratings.

It's hard not to be disappointed in the lack of scares. There are tons of scary images, certainly. It's just that there are few moments where viewers are genuinely frightened. We watch people overcome with terror, but we don't necessarily feel it because we're shown too much, too early. It's like a magician revealing his trick while performing it; it's the unknown that really gets to an audience.

In Evil Dead 2, we never see the big creature that chases Ash through the forest. In Scream, we don't know who might be the killer or what their motive is. Being afraid of the dark is all about not knowing what's out there. Cabin may keep you guessing, or even confuse you, but it's never scary like 28 Days Later, or A Nightmare on Elm Street.

That's not a crime, and it doesn't make the movie in any way bad. It does make me wonder if this almost counts as a failed horror film - but that's in a philosophical way (and might become a future double-doulbe-dip). The Cabin in the Woods will entertain you, thoroughly. But since you're not afraid and can predict several moments (I know I did), this horror genre experience does lose some of its sting.

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