24 Lies a Second: Jabbin', Stabbin', and Gabbin' in the Cabin

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Jabbin', Stabbin', and Gabbin' in the Cabin

One odd modern phenomenon is the shelved film: a completed movie which hangs around in the studio vault for ages before finally getting any kind of theatrical release. More often than not this is simply because the studio belatedly realise they've funded a dog and are too embarrassed to tell anyone – at this point heavy re-editing and reshoots may occur, never, it seems to me, to much effect. Recently, films have started being held back so they can have the evils of 3Dification inflicted upon them. Sometimes there are other reasons.

Current case in point: Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, which was made by MGM in 2009 and intended for a 2010 release. This was initially put back until 2011 so the movie could (boo hiss) be 3Dified, and then MGM went bust. Now the movie has been sold on to Lionsgate and has finally made it into cinemas (in 2D, thankfully). I say all this in the unlikely event you're aware of this movie's vintage, but not of the reasons for the delay in release – or indeed, the rave reviews it has been receiving. Fairly unlikely, I know, but still...

It also bulks out the review a bit, because I'm really not sure how much I can say about this film, which is much more vulnerable to being spoiled than most. It is the story of a group of American college students (the average age of the performers playing them is, according to my dubious maths and the available information, 28 and a bit, but I am being churlish) heading off for a fun-filled weekend at a remote cabin in some nearby woods. Amongst their number are fun-loving Jules (Anna Hutchison), alpha male Curt (Chris Hemsworth), nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), serious and sensible Dana (Kristen Connolly), and pharmaceutically addled Marty (Fran Kranz). Off they set in their RV, ignoring the warnings of a creepy guy they meet on the way.

Once at the cabin, everything is lovely until the cellar door unexpectedly opens. Down below they discover all kinds of peculiar bric-a-brac, but most significantly a diary containing a Latin inscription – or is it more of an incantation, or curse? Suffice to say that bad-tempered zombies equipped with home-improvement devices are soon bearing down on the quintet with murder in their pustulent hearts...

And that's literally all I can say about The Cabin in the Woods without risking spoiling one of the smartest and most absurdly enjoyable films I've seen in a very long time. If you haven't seen a trailer, avoid them; don't check this film out on Wikipedia; be very careful what other reviews you read, especially on t'internet. Well, this isn't absolutely necessary, but if you're at all a fan of horror movies – or the genre as a whole – or even just intelligent entertainment, then for you this movie will be a bowl of ice cream smothered in fudge sauce, and it would be stupid to risk spoiling a terrific experience.

In the space of a zippy 95 minutes, The Cabin in the Woods tackles the following topics with wit and insight:

  • the established conventions of mainstream horror movies in general
  • why horror film characters act in such stupid and predictable ways
  • why the characters are such stereotypes anyway
  • the strange appeal of seeing attractive young people butchered
  • audience expectations of exploitation movies
  • the desensitising effect of watching violence
  • the banality of true evil
  • how weird a lot of J-Horror movies are

...and doubtless many more I've either forgotten or didn't have the intelligence to spot in the first place.

How, you may be wondering, does what sounds like a very by-the-numbers teen splatter movie manage this? Well, if I'm honest, my capsule synopsis is somewhat more selective than usual, but have faith, you'll thank me later. The familiarity of the whole set-up is crucial to the plot, as well as occasioning many of the film's kisses to established horror lore. Most obviously, The Evil Dead is a major influence, but there are also... no, I honestly can't bring myself to reveal any more.

Suffice to say that the final reel of this film is utterly impossible to predict from the way the movie opens. It has one of those vanishingly rare moments when the film shows you something and you think 'It's be cool if [something happened], but they'd never do that' – and then they go and do it. I was slack-jawed with amazed delight when I wasn't roaring with laughter for most of this film's last fifteen minutes.

If you are thinking that it sounds like The Cabin in the Woods abandons its horror trappings to become something else entirely at the end, you'd be right, but it's a brilliant switch. To be perfectly honest, I never found it that scary, but the smartness of the dialogue and the deftness of the performances are winning throughout. Chris Hemsworth is visibly much more comfortable here than in the role he'll be rather more prominent in this summer, and Fran Kranz must have been kicking the wainscotting for the last two years: this film should give him a major career bump. But all of the young actors are good, and there are winning turns from Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as... heh, as if.

Given that Drew Goddard's most prominent previous work was as scriptwriter for Cloverfield – yes, I am reliably informed that movie had a script – this is all a bit of a revelation and a lot of attention has, understandably, swung to the producer and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon. Whedon's trademark intelligence and facility with dialogue is all over this film, and connoisseurs of his past work will find certain... resonances... in this one. Whedon's reputation, of course, doesn't need any (ahem) buffing, and it's fascinating to wonder what might happen if he were to be given $220 million to make a major studio blockbuster, but of course that's never going to happen.

The Cabin in the Woods is not quite perfect. Coming out of it I felt a tiny bit disappointed that after forensically dissecting and deconstructing a whole set of horror cliches, the film had simply fallen back on another set to make the climax function. But on further reflection, I'm not sure there isn't a further level of metaphor going on here, with the very act of making and viewing horror fiction portrayed as a deal with the Devil... I think I'm on the verge of going too far again. In any case, some more explication might have been ideal here, though I'm not sure how that would have been possible without clobbering the pace of the climactic scenes.

Never mind. I'm not sure if The Cabin in the Woods honestly qualifies as a true horror movie, despite the lavish quantities of Kensington Gore featured in the production. But I'm very certain it's the sharpest and most thought-provoking genre movie I've seen in a very long time. This may not turn out to be the biggest Whedon-scripted film of the summer, but I'll be pleasantly surprised if it isn't the best.

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