By C. Michael Forsyth
Ever wonder why characters in horror movies choose the worst possible time and place to have sex? Why they descend into the pitch-black basement of a house that’s obviously haunted? Split up so they can be picked off one by one? All these questions and just about every other you’ve asked yourself while munching popcorn are answered in The Cabin in the Woods.
Produced and co-written by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Cabin in the Woods is a tour de force that works as a horror film, workplace comedy and genre-demolishing satire. It’s Westworld meets Wrong Turn meets Evil Dead, to mention just three of the innumerable movies to which it plays loving homage and/or gleefully skewers.
In the movie, five young college students fitting neatly into recognizable types vacation in an isolated cabin where horrific events begin to unfold. Unbeknownst to them, everything is being orchestrated by a cadre of puppet masters in a vast underground complex. The staff includes managers, technicians, accountants, maintenance workers and even geeky interns. (I don’t consider all this a spoiler since it’s revealed within the first three minutes — if you didn’t already figure it out from the trailer).
The film derives much of its humor from the high jinks of these Dilbert-type drones. At one point, the bored-out-of-their-skulls staffers organize a betting pool on what horror the hapless vacationers will face first. En route to the cabin, the students ignore the cryptic warnings of a creepy old gas station attendant. When the guy later calls in to report, the staff puts him on speaker phone and giggle as he continues to drone on ominously.
The concept is thought-provoking. What we generally think of as stereotypes – the Virgin, the Whore, the Jock, the Brain, the Comic Relief — are elevated to archetypes. It’s the best deconstruction of the horror genre since Scream, on a level that would impress Bruno Bettleheim, the celebrated analyst of fairytales.
Some critics describe the movie as an allegory for the process of filmmaking itself. How can you argue? The staffers even call their mysterious boss “The Director.” Beneath that layer of meaning, there’s also a wry commentary about our surveillance society. Marty, the wisecracking pothead paranoiac and “The Fool” of the group, points out that “Society isn’t falling apart, it’s coming together.” As he puts it, the “cracks are filling in” as technology devours privacy and living off the grid becomes increasingly impossible.
Tropes of the horror genre are simultaneously observed and lampooned. Sexy pre-med student Jules (Anna Hutchison) has just dyed her hair blonde when the story begins and it’s later revealed that a chemical secretly placed in the dye makes Jules, AKA “The Whore” act stupid.
While not likely to make you quiver in fear, the movie meets the basic requirements of a horror film: Suspense, characters you root for, formidable dangers and enough gore to satisfy fans of traditional horror flicks.
Brawny Chris Hemsworth (Thor in The Avengers) delivers a winning performance as Curt, the brave Jock. Fran Kranz earns plenty of chuckles as Marty, the Fool. He fills the position Shaggy did in Scooby Doo and looks the part as well. But the real stars here are Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as the world-weary managers of the operation. Whitford, best known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on TV’s The West Wing sends up his in-control, seen-it-all image with obvious relish. And Jenkins, looking like a worn-out NASA engineer, is even more droll and cynical than he was as the disembodied dad in HBO’s Six Feet Under.
The climax of the film is in keeping with its blend of humor and horror — way, way over the top, in a good way.
SPEAKING OF JOSS WHEDON…
No one mixes comedy and horror better than Joss Whedon, as I’m learning right now as I watch TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time on Netflix. Somehow I managed to miss the series when it debuted in the late ’90s. I’m blown away by how good it is – one of the handful of TV series, along with Highlander, that is far superior to the film that inspired it.
The playfulness is pure joy. In the episode I saw last night, Xander believes Willow has turned into a vampire and thrusts a crucifix in her face. When she fails to recoil, he shakes it like a flashlight that might need its batteries jiggled.
But drama is equally well handled. The brilliant storytelling is displayed when Buffy loses her virginity to good-guy vampire Angel. Following convention, love might cure him of vampirism. Instead, in an inversion of Beauty and the Beast, he becomes evil, his soul ejected from his body. In the hands of a less talented writer, the next scene would be Angel bursting into Buffy’s room, fangs bared. Instead he simply acts like a jerk, humiliating her by showing her the night of passion meant nothing to him. Far more sadistic. And, since this is an experience many a young woman will recognize, it helps to ground the series in reality, keeping it a coming of age story as well as a butt-kicking action/adventure show. The more you watch Buffy, the worse Twilight looks by comparison.
The intensely dramatic and horrific is always leavened by wit. In the episode in which fellow vampire slayer Kendra dies tragically she first gives Buffy her “lucky stake” — which she has nicknamed “Mr. Pointy.” In the same episode Buffy’s watcher Giles sheepishly admits that he’s been using the crystal orb that can restore Angel’s soul as a paperweight.
I’m only midway through Season 3 and have already met so many wonderful characters, most memorably Spike, the cockney vampire with the Billy Idol hair and penchant for puppy love. By turns terrifying and laughable, James Marsters is absolutely magnetic in the role. (He won the poll of Sexiest Male Screen Vampire on this site by a landslide). Speaking recently to a publisher who uses Marsters for a lot of audio books, I was surprised to learn the star isn’t even English!
I love how characters are allowed to evolve. A pitfall of many series is that characters remain exactly as originally written and are unaffected by the events that befall them. Most infamously Dana Scully in X Files, who is skeptical of werewolves even after battling vampires.
Buffy’s mentor Rupert Giles (Anthony Head) could have been a thankless role: a character like Bosley in Charlie’s Angels who does little more than provide exposition then step out of the way to let the girls swing into action. Instead, he develops a tender father-daughter relationship with Buffy that is the backbone of the series. He’s allowed to have romances. And the shy British librarian is not above opening a jar of good old English whup ass to save Buffy’s bum from time to time.
In fact there are no thankless roles in Whedon’s world. Xander, initially merely a goofball, becomes an increasingly heroic figure, always willing to charge into battle though lacking any special powers. This “geek” eventually gets to kiss almost every girl on the show. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), who briefly assumes the role of Buffy’s watcher and is even stuffier than Giles, is insufferable. And rich-bitch Cordelia is intractably airheaded. Yet even they get a chance to evolve into heroes themselves in the Buffy spinoff Angel.
Though the show premiered nearly 15 years ago, it doesn’t seem dated – you barely notice that the teens don’t text. Some aspects of high school are universal. You will always have good girls, snobs, class clowns and nerds. As in Cabin in the Woods, there are some archetypes that just don’t die. Or sometimes die violently.
Copyright C. Michael Forsyth
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