Friday 6 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods review

The Cabin in the Woods (15/R, 95 mins)
Director: Drew Goddard
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

For many months now, the internet has been abuzz with tales of the originality and the genius of The Cabin in the Woods.

Partly that’s because it was first slated to open in 2010, so it’s certainly been doing the rounds for long enough. For once though, a film’s years on the shelf are nothing to do with its quality, rather an abandoned 3D conversion and a bankrupt studio that left its release in limbo.

The other talking point has been about how any reviews of it should be spoiler-free. That’s how all reviews should be, but it’s made tricky in this case because the thing that could be construed as the major giveaway happens in the first twenty minutes or so and could therefore legitimately be discussed as part of the basic plot, especially if you’ve seen the trailer.

But even that much would be unfair, and much of the joy of this insane comedy horror comes in its discoveries, and so knowing as little as possible is definitely a good thing. So in the interests of playing along, let’s just say that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

It’s the directing debut of the writer of Cloverfield, Drew Goddard, who co-writes with Joss Whedon. With Whedon’s Avengers movie opening in a couple of weeks and one of that film’s stars, Chris Hemsworth (Thor), now a recognisable face appearing here, the timing seems ideal.

Outwith the ‘thing that sets it apart’, it’s a very typical setup. A bunch of students, among them Hemsworth and Kristen Connolly, head off for a weekend of partying at a cabin in the woods. We’ve seen it a thousand times before in horrors good and bad. There’s the remote location, dodgy looking locals, and stock figures within the group, like the jock and the geek.

But this isn’t cliché, it’s Goddard and Whedon putting us exactly where they want us to be, before the members of the group start to get picked off by oh, let’s say, monsters. But meanwhile we’ve also been introduced to a pair of scientists (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in what looks like a Bond villain’s underground lair. They're clearly up to something, and there’s a good chance it’s going to involve the cabin. And the woods.

What follows is as much a deconstruction of the genre as a horror film in its own right. Like Scream was a decade and a half ago, it’s incredibly knowing yet not clever-clever for the sake of it, and plays with the tropes to remind the audience why they love horror, whether as something formulaic and jaded, or as comfortingly familiar.

But though it may seem a strange criticism for a praiseworthy horror, it’s just not very scary, certainly not providing the ferocity of something like Drag Me to Hell. But then Drag Me to Hell is nowhere near as funny as this, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

The premise, execution and laughs see it through. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Evil Dead are the most obvious touchstones, though the closest comparison is probably Evil Dead II, which so deftly manages to blend laughs and frights. But then, when this gets to a certain point, you’ll be hard pushed to find a horror that isn’t referenced in some way.

It becomes something truly demented by the final stretch, and luckily we have a very likeable cast capable of getting us there. All the actors playing the students are rock solid, but Jenkins and Whitford take it to another level. They make a brilliant double act, and their increasing exasperation as things get out of their control provides many of the film’s funniest moments.

If only it could have somehow been a more effective scare-machine, The Cabin in the Woods could have emerged as a masterpiece of the genre. Instead it’s just ridiculously entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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