Friday, April 13, 2012

"The Cabin in the Woods"

 2.5 / 5 

The Cabin in the Woods is a master's thesis in Fanboy Filmmaking, a movie that slyly blends and bends genres with flair and ease, but that is so self-satisfied it's surprisingly hard for outsiders to like.  You'll most enjoy The Cabin in the Woods if you are familiar with the work of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard.

Whedon created fanboy-favorite TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, which were like pop-culture secret societies -- if you didn't follow along from the beginning, you weren't invited to join the fun.  Goddard was a key writer on Lost, an insider show if ever there was one, and wrote Cloverfield, a movie I liked a lot even though I didn't understand the intricately designed backstory created on the Internet almost as a secret handshake that you sensed the movie's creators would have liked to have made a requirement for buying a ticket.

The Cabin in the Woods is simultaneously more and less accessible than any of those TV shows and movies.  It's enjoyable enough for hip, smart mass audiences, but will be most appreciated by people who understand the many in-jokes and sardonic winks the movie throws at its audience.

That The Cabin in the Woods isn't just about said cabin is made clear with the first shot, which isn't of the college students who are about to venture into the woods to find the rustic abode, but of actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as workers in some vaguely sinister looking, high-tech lab.

This part is hinted at in the film's trailer -- the cabin is much more than it seems, and the kids are going to discover this at some point.  Whedon and Goddard are up front about this much: The Cabin in the Woods isn't a horror film, it's a comedy, and its humor relies on us knowing what's about to happen to the most archetypal group of characters to assemble since Oceanic 815 crashed in the South Pacific.

That director Goddard was so intergral to many of the best episodes of Lost is something I didn't realize until after I saw The Cabin in the Woods, but it makes sense now, because the central mystery to be solved in the movie -- why exactly these kids are here to be slaughtered -- is more than a little similar to where Lost was headed before veering so disastrously off course.

Yet, that pop-culture in-breeding is also what unexpectedly softens the blow of The Cabin in the Woods.  It's all a little too manufactured to appeal specifically to the tastes of people who spent a lot of time watching similar stories play out over the course of hundreds of hours on TV.  In many ways, The Cabin in the Woods is too smart for its own good; it can't stop laughing at its own jokes long enough to offer something really new.

Oh, it's a good deal of fun while it all plays out, all right.  Yet in its final revelations, The Cabin in the Woods is just too bloody familiar.  It takes the worst of '80s slasher films and mixes in the best of the science-and-literature-based pop culture touchstones of the '00s, but that's about the extent of its innovation.  Grafting one kind of story onto another is clever and so well done that it elicits generous laughs from knowing audiences.  But that's the thing: Enjoyment of a film shouldn't be predicated on being in the know.

The Cabin in the Woods stands on the shoulders of some great entertainment that is revered among people (me among them) for whom Comic-Con is one of the cultural highlights of the year.  For them (or, if you prefer, us), it's entertaining, daffy fun.

The big trouble is, it can't really stand on its own.

Viewed April 13, 2012 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks

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