I had the opportunity the other night to see Drew Goddard‘s and Joss Whedon’s latest, The Cabin in the Woods. Whedon has a cult following as a screenwriter, from such TV shows as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series, as well as Firefly. While I never warmed to Firefly (though I liked the film Serenity well enough) I was re-introduced to TV watching with Buffy. I hadn’t watched TV in years, except for a show here or there. Mostly I thought it was banal at best and idiotic most of the time, catering to the lowest common denominator with tired and cliché dialogue. Married with Children epitomized the wretchedness of TV for me and I just stayed away.
The process of helping a client (who became a friend) lay out her novel involved watching an episode of Buffy afterwards. I was stunned. Here were characters that changed, dialogue that was unpredictable and a plot that was dark and delectable. I was hooked. Whedon’s fame was justifiable for original writing and well-fleshed characters. And while Buffy could have been staked and slain itself before that final denouement, half-baked season came along, even that didn’t detract from the fact it was one of the best storylines on TV I had ever seen. I have since met HBO and found other stories that show the bravado of today’s scriptwriting when writers are allowed to blossom.
Goddard has his own cult following for his writing of the Alias and Lost TV series. Likewise, Alias became far too convoluted with plots and intrigues within intrigues, and Lost got wackier to what I thought was an ending that didn’t really work. Still, they were compelling stories with complex characters both likable and detestable at times. Lost‘s way of going forward with the present story while revealing more and more past history of the characters gave it interesting layers.
With The Cabin in the Woods all I knew was that Joss Whedon wrote it and that it was based on those tried and true horror genre films; you know the ones. The creepy basements, the unknown in the wild, the strange occurrences, the glimpses out of the corner of the eye. In fact, I thought it was going to be a play off of that pseudo reality styled film, The Blair Witch Project, where you never see the horror. If you don’t want spoilers before you see this film, you might want to stop now, because horrors you see aplenty. I called this the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink film.
I think this is the ending Joss always wanted for Buffy or Angel but didn’t quite get. You couldn’t squish another monster into this film. Indeed, they all burst forth, for the weekend in the woods is not what these people bargained for but it’s even more bizarre than anyone could have feared, because there is a whole network of technicians and masterminds at work helping orchestrate these college students’ downfalls. But of course, it doesn’t go smoothly for anyone; you could say it doesn’t go well for the monsters either.
The main characters are manipulated right from the beginning, with interspersed images of these guys in a bunker watching them and initiating protocols so that you’re saying WTF? A slow reveal gives more and more information, until the last tidbit is unveiled. Overall, this isn’t built up with the total dark suspense music that leads to a shocking reveal of the bad guy. Every time it looks kind of intense, something alleviates the buildup. So when the creepy looking backwoods fella at the decrepit gas station (with lots of furs and dead skinned things) calls the guys in the bunker, he delivers an Armageddon brimstone and fire soliloquy. The bunker guys listen intently until creepy guy says, “Do you have me on speaker phone?” He continues with the prophecies of doom once assured it’s turned off while the other guys break down in hysterics.
Basically every horror movie cliché is turned on its ass or twisted into something new. Almost. With the plethora of creepy critters to choose from Whedon and Goddard’s immediate antagonists are…zombies. Yep. But maybe that’s the point. This movie, if nothing else, is a pastiche of and an homage to horror movies and every bizarro monster ever imagined that sucks, occupies, eats and terrorizes humans. A true horror story is one where the protagonist fights and tries to prevail against the odds and evil, but ultimately is overcome. This movie fills it to the max without hope of redemption, survival or a sequel. Throughout the film a dark vein of humor is threaded, sometimes lighter, but in the end, when everything ends you still have to laugh.
Is this because Whedon and Goddard were worried about it being too bleak or that they really are paying tribute to the genre of horror? To me, it seems the latter. The movie was worthy, with some very fun characters and unexpected outcomes. It had enough twists that there is literally no dull moment, and in this case overcoming evil isn’t such a good thing. I’d give it an 8 skulls out of 10 on the monster movie meter.