Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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The Cabin In the Woods made quite a splash at last month’s South by Southwest Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. The movie, which reportedly had been languishing unseen for more than two years before Lionsgate rescued it, seems to have been designed for auditoriums full of giddy fanboys who enjoy watching a director subvert a genre and then put pedal to the metal with an all-out-assault on Hollywood’s attraction to effects-laden finales. If Cabin in the Woods can be seen with the right kind of audience, it might provide a contagious sort of fun.

Five friends enter... how many will leave?
Five friends enter... how many will leave?

This time, though, I find myself in disagreement with my film-geek friends. I responded to Cabin in the Woods without either fear or laughter, even as director Drew Goddard — who wrote the movie Cloverfield — knowingly played with all manner of horror cliches, the most prominent of them involving a stereotypical group of college students who head off to an isolated forest cabin for a weekend of fun.

Of course, we know trouble will follow. Our hapless students will soon encounter the expected horrors, but — and here’s the movie’s gimmick — we also learn that the environment in which these kids find themselves is being manipulated by cynical corporate types who operate out of a high-tech control room and make bets on what’s likely to transpire.

Goddard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon, introduces us to a prototypically standard group of movie kids: a handsome jock (Chris Hemsworth), a slutty girl (Anna Hutchison) and a pot-smoking druggie (Fran Kranz). You don’t need to know the rest of the characters because, by the very nature of Goddard’s semi-playful enterprise, they’re not really worth knowing. They’re types that more often than not are fed into big-screen slaughter machines. Oh, all right, the other two kids are played by Jesse Williams and Kristen Connolly.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play the main techies in the control room. This cynical duo manipulates just about everything that happens in and around the cabin through some sort of unexplained machinations involving lots of electronics. Need a bit of libidinous stimulation? Release the pheromone mist.

It’s impossible not to compare these two wise-cracking techies to movie directors who pull the levers that guide audiences through familiar funhouses of horror in which characters act stupidly (heading alone into darkened basements) or fight off relentless monsters (indefatigable redneck zombies).

Cabin in the Woods even boasts a far-fetched explanation for everything we’ve seen. I suppose we need this explanation because Cabin’s major intrigue revolves around one question: Why are Jenkins and Whitford, as characters who appear to be working for a large company, carrying out this cruel scheme.

It’s not possible to tell more without including a ton of spoilers. Know, though, that some viewers will regard the movie’s finale as surprising and enjoyably preposterous.

I found it mostly preposterous without much amusement. Cabin in the Woods may have wanted to say something smart about horror movies that too often display a strained, synthetic quality and no real convictions. But what convictions does Cabin have? Here’s the problem: If you spend a whole movie subverting a genre, you run the risk of being left with nothing to stand on but air.

This “Cabin” is built from a certain kind of smart-alecky cleverness about movies and not much else.

  • Skim: I think you may have missed the point of this movie. What is wrong with subverting a genre while having a little fun. This movie was molded in the Reimi style, and I for one enjoyed the hell out of it. April 15, 2012 reply
  • Nate: You apparently haven't watched any of Whedon's most popular stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel. If you had, you would have realized that you totally missed the point. Watch Buffy and Angel. April 15, 2012 reply
    • Gregory: So your statement is that a person has to watch Joss Whedon's other not interesting things in order to appreciate this one? Get over your fandom.

      I went in knowing what he'd done and I enjoyed maybe, the first 90% of the movie. It was quirky and it was funny. I felt the nudity was completely uncalled for though. Not that it hurt prude sensibilities, but because it removed the playfulness of the film.

      Anyway, the ending was hackneyed and preachy. The reviewer is hard on the movie as a whole, but the last two minutes of the film deserve as much disgust as they can conjure up. It was just... boring. Smarmy and unnecessary. April 16, 2012 reply
      • Sam: How does a pair of breasts reduce the playfulness of the film but all the gruesome gore doesn't? April 22, 2012 reply
  • PeterC: This critic is the only one making sense. Movie was an horrific waste of 90 minutes. Script was dull, good jokes were almost non-existant, no tension whatsoever for the horror. This is no scream, no evil dead...no Sean of the Dead..it's a nothing... Cop on people. April 16, 2012 reply
    • Ben: PeterC and Mr. Denerstein are right on point with their reviews.

      Sadly, for Whedon and Goddard, all the movie's attempts at so-called horror, comedy, and satire are undercut by the heavy-handed artifice that the whole movie rests on.

      It's almost like the filmmakers are shouting at the audience and critics to praise the gimmicky cleverness they've conceived. Yet, ten minutes into the movie, once the jig is up, who really cares what happens to these characters and why?

      What you're left with is a mild interest in what else lies behind the curtain. Along the way to this final reveal--a laughable absurdity at best--the movie tumbles into a schlocky mess with no suspense, thrills, or interesting character developments.

      The movie's few redeeming qualities are the sometimes funny wisecracks uttered by the pothead character, and some creative uses of movie monster bloodshed that would make a horror film archivist proud. Otherwise, "A Cabin in the Woods" mixes a genre-bending cocktail of two parts overdone satire, one part pseudo-horror, and one part smart alecky humor. The result: an impotent potable--and, unfortunately for the audience, no buzz.

      July 12, 2012 reply
  • Jouissance!: Sadly, Mr. Denerstein, the true cynicism appears to lie in your review. Entering the theater with little expectation, I left highly entertained. It's certainly true that there is a trend in modern entertainment that presents "meta" storylines and/or characters that seem continually impressed with how smart-alecky they are. And I have often found these shows and movies tiresome. This movie, however, invited me to suspend my inner critic and be entertained. I got swept along in the narrative and marveled at how Whedon and Goddard managed to pull that off. I truly see this movie's main purpose to provide entertainment by playing with convention; I mean, truly, need every example of cinematic hedonism be labeled as attempt to "subvert" or snark?

    And that "airy" feeling you're referencing? It may not be due to a lack of intrinsic meaning but instead may be the vertigo that unadulterated joy can bring. April 16, 2012 reply
    • Summon: I hate babyboomers seriously. I keep reading reviews of movies geared to the Gen X,Y reviewed by "you people". Just stop trying to relate to movies that were not even made for you. Couldn't you just say hey I'm old and cynical and don't understand this rather than complain about how it seems forced. . You went with Meta, really did you just discover urban dictionary? If this is forced whats Memento or Inception? Its a horror movie so it cant be absurd or nihilistic or full of unrealistic situations. Wait crap I think I just described the Genre you said it subverts. I swear existentialism and the absurd skipped the boomers, get out of the way its our time now. :) April 17, 2012 reply
      • OmegaMon: Cabin in the Woods is just the type of movie that I'd expect the Zombie Simpsons generation to go wild over... After the movie, I went home and wished I'd just watched Evil Dead on DVD. April 19, 2012 reply
  • TacoDave: Count me in as a viewer who agrees with this review.

    SPOILERS HERE!!! YOU ARE WARNED!!!

    The last couple of minutes really didn't make any sense at all. Why did that famous lady (who I won't name) suddenly appear in the sacrifice chamber? Was she hiding there? Why couldn't her death count as the fool, since she was foolish enough to tangle with the kids?

    But a better question is this: why did the "god" under the cabin emerge to destroy the world when they failed, but in the other nations (Japan, for example) nothing bad happened when they failed? Is there only one "god" down there, and he happened to be under the cabin in the U.S. when they failed? Or are there multiple "gods" and they call each other on the phone to keep each other up to date on the success/failure rate?

    And in a side note, how did the zombie girl with one arm get down in the underground complex? Didn't stoner boy and the girl take the elevator that was in the grave? Did she push a button and wait for a new elevator?

    It was really a lame ending. April 16, 2012 reply
    • Devinj: Humanity had to complete the ritual on that day. They did the ritual in several locations as a failsafe, so if any one failed the ritual would still be completed. Japan failed, the other countries failed, so America was the last remaining option to complete the ritual. When America too failed, the ancient gods arose, presumably everywhere. April 17, 2012 reply
      • Steph: What about the Japanese school girls? They didn't fit the 5 archetypes. Was that only a mold only for the US? Maybe that was stated somewhere. April 18, 2012 reply
        • Phineasbean: They explain that each country has its own set of rituals. Please pay closer attention. This was a smarter movie than you think.
          April 20, 2012 reply
  • Cojo: Sure seems like a common theme that the people who don't like this movie didn't understand this movie. April 17, 2012 reply
  • Mark: I watched Cabin in the Woods last night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now that that's out of the way...Movie Critics.

    Is anybody else tired of these professional couch potatoes telling the rest of us how we need to find meaning in something in order to be entertained? Or that we haven't got a shred of taste unless we think Casablanca or Gone With the Wind are the greatest films of all time?

    I sometimes get the sense that film critics filter their reviews specifically to impress upon other film critics how developed their critique palate is. For example:

    Critic A: "What do you think is the greatest Horror film ever made?"

    Critic B: "Well... I'd have to say Nosferatu. It's style was so new and shocking and people had never seen anything like it before. I just couldn't give it any other place except #1"

    Critic A: "Ooooh I disagree. While Nosferatu is definitely a classic for all of the reasons you've just mentioned I have to say The Exorcist is the best. Not because it's terribly scary or well made but rather because of how shocked people were when it came out in the 1970's. I mean honestly... who could ever imagine such a good little girl screaming such foul words?!"

    If you think I'm wrong go watch The Tree of Life... It got great reviews.
    April 17, 2012 reply
  • Roy R: I am worried about the youth of today if they think this was a good film. I suppose that they have to be over stimulated by special effects or outrageous behavior in order to be entertained. This notion of "well, you didn't understand the film", is a bunch of crap. There was nothing so deep as to require understanding. It was a mish mash of gags that were not scary or funny, just predictable cheese that was a complete waste of time. They should have let this one die a natural death in 2009. However, if it makes money for the film business, I guess it doesn't matter if it is well done. They know their target audience very well, 12-16 year olds who are easily amused and require mindless stimulation. Would somebody please make a good horror film? There has been nothing worth watching since The Exorcist or Alien. I'm tired of waiting. Maybe I need a lobotomy so I can enjoy the crap they put out today. April 18, 2012 reply
    • MajorTool: I agree with you, Roy R. There was nothing interesting, smart, scary or funny about this movie. Though it tries to combine several aspects of the horror genre, the only thing it really succeeds at paying homage to is Scooby-Doo. But Scooby was better because, at least I remember the names of the characters and was genuinely creeped out a time or two.
      The whole ancient evil gods plot was just silly but my two biggest problems with this movie were:
      * There was not a single character in this movie to care about. I realize the point was to make them all SEEM like cliches but they were all too boring to be cliche. In one scene, I remember a character making a statement about the supposedly dumb jock being really smart......uhm...."show, don't tell".
      *Too much exposition. Good Lord! Do you have to explain every little thing? Who CARES why characters in a horror movie have to be butchered? Just give us a heroic character to relate to, a villain to fear and hate, and a bunch of suspense and gore. But stop trying to make smart American Horror movies that only prove how idiotic our society has become.
      April 19, 2012 reply
      • Phineas Bean: Wow, Show don't tell. You have missed the point. The Jock archetype was being manipulated by the controllers. That line was brilliant because it showed that these characters were not acting as they usually do. They were on the Reality TV of the ancients. The jock was being dumbed down to act the part. April 20, 2012 reply
        • MajorTool: No, I did not miss the point. I understand the college kids' behavior was being manipulated. All of that was explained(ad nauseum). I just expect so much more from Whedon. This movie was sophomoric, at best. Everything it tries to do has already been done in the Scooby-Doo cartoons.
          I'm shocked this movie received such great reviews but everyone is entitled to their opinion. I hated it and, as a result, I'm less likely to trust movie reviewers. Any movie with a giant snake in it automatically rates a C-. April 21, 2012 reply
  • TJ: Horrible horrible writing. The movie attempts to satire horror movie tropes by playing right into them. The storyline is about as ludicrous as it gets and it’s not even internally consistent. In fact, there are so many plot holes in this movie you will notice them even if you are trying not to. The movie makes a big point of saying that the victims are being punished for not recognizing said tropes, yet the audience is given zero reward for noticing the tropes the movie itself falls into. It’s like they either didn’t even realize what they were doing, or they just didn’t care. Be prepared for characters who should be dead suddenly not being dead and characters that barely receive any injuries suddenly dying. You will be repeatedly hit over the head with the message that most horror movies today are cliched and feature ridiculous monsters, yet this movie features the most ridiculous monster of all. April 19, 2012 reply
  • Tennis: The movie makes a point of showing us that the victims’ vital signs are being monitored, yet the plot hinges on the corporation not realizing that a character is still alive. The movie attempts to explain itself with an absurd storyline of five archetypes, one of each must be sacrificed. However, the movie also tells us that the kids were not originally these types and were forced to become them after being given personality-affecting drugs. None of the hundreds of other deaths count as being these sacrifices however, and the Japanese schoolchildren do not fall under these types either. Characters are stabbed only to have their clothing magically repaired in the next scene and no one even bothers to develop a limp despite horrific injuries. The movie never bothers to tell us why the company would bother housing thousands of monsters instead of just relying on the same one each time, nor does it answer why the sacrifices are even necessary since the blood used to fill the sacrificial stones was already prepared before any of the murders. The movie also fails to explain why and how the massive corporation is located in the middle of nowhere yet there are no main roads leading in or out of the area and there is no explanation given for why an ancient god lives under the woods where there is no evidence of civilization until recently. I could go on but just be aware that if you see this movie be prepared to leave your intellect at the door if you want to enjoy yourself. April 19, 2012 reply
    • billy: I feel sorry for you. How do you ever enjoy any movie being such a cynic? You can pick holes in any movie. Lets take star wars - no-one ever explains why these aliens/jedis are all flying around in outer space, I mean apparently there is no life out there. Luke sky walkers vehicle moves above ground with some kind of magical force, are we supposed to believe that this could be possible. Oh wait what about chewbacca, he's like a man sized dog, that could never happen. And at the end with all the destructive powers that Darth vader has he loses like what the... September 25, 2012 reply
  • Billy: I loved this movie. Im a huge horror fan but most horror films these days disappoint. I have to say I found cabin in the fever had me on the edge of my seat. It was thrilling. I felt like screaming one minute and laughing the next. I also really enjoyed the whole subversion thing and the homage to other films. You'd have to be pretty jaded and cynical to not enjoy this film. September 23, 2012 reply
  • J Taylor: I can appreciate a quirky tribute with the best of them. My wife and I just watched this movie after seeing it so highly rated elsewhere. Our unanimous reaction?

    WTF?

    Sorry. It was unique and creative but I just didn't think it was that great a movie, plain and simple. I want my 90 minutes and $6.99 back....

    I agree with this review whole heatedly. October 5, 2012 reply