I have a love/hate relationship with Joss Whedon. On the one hand, there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. On the other, Dollhouse (sorry, never did get into it), the fun but mostly messy “Buffy Season 8” graphic series, and YOU KILLED FRED YOU BASTARD. (Though Whedon’s re-vamp of Much Ado About Nothing, with Amy Ackers as Beatrice, could go a long way towards forgiveness. Kinda.) When Joss said he was going to “attempt to revitalize the horror film which…had ‘devolved’ with the introduction of ‘torture porn'”, I got excited. Because I cannot stand pointless horror films that amount to nothing more than an over-glorification of senseless death. Gory slashers, fine. But don’t crap on my parade with a shocking ending that is no longer shocking, and that adds insult to injury by leaving the door open for an even crappier sequel. Although The Cabin in the Woods starts off as a deliciously creepy surprise, it sputters out and ends with a weak-willed bang that’s more okey-dokey than awesome. This is a film that has too many good ideas, and loses itself in the weight of it’s own excess.
It’s difficult to discuss this movie without spoiling the heavily hyped “game changing” plot points. So let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? The Cabin In The Woods is a Whedonphile’s dream come true. It’s got everything his acolytes want; actors from his TV shows, snarky dialogue and constant snide nudge-nudges at genre clichés. Though it was fun to watch, it wasn’t the satisfying concoction I’d been hoping for. Viewers who haven’t memorized all the episodes of BtVS and Angel may think this stuff is a revelation, but halfway in, The Cabin in the Woods feels like Joss’ Greatest Hits playing at a multiplex near you. Not necessarily a bad thing, but nothing truly new either.
Five college friends decide to head to the boonies and spend a weekend on on their lonesome. Just them, a keg and what’s sure to be an ever-lowering set of inhibitions. When they get near their destination, they’re met by Obligatory Scary Old Dude Who Tries To Warn Them Away. No such luck. Our fearless five head into a tunnel, never seeing the bird that gets zapped when it tries to fly over the river right next to that tunnel. Is this Under The Dome? No, but it has a nice Stephen King-like creepy vibe. That zap is also supposed to warn you that Things Are Different Here, Y’all. (Yes, be prepared for a lot of capitalization in this review. Because there are a lot of character, plot and general genre stereotypes that must be skewered…or used when Whedon runs out of ideas.)
Our kids make it to the cabin alright. And it’s a beaut! Kind of a tossup between Tucker & Dale vs. Evil‘s “vacation cottage” and E vil Dead II‘s creepy demon house in the woods. But the kids are fine with the backwoods Motel 6 accommodations, probably because as stock characters, they don’t really think that much. There’s the Jock (Chris Hemsworth), the Bimbo (Anna Hutchison), the Stoner (Fran Kranz, playing Whedon’s favorite character, The Geek Who Is Us), the New Guy (Grey’s Anatomy heartthrob Jesse Williams) and of course, the Virgin (Kristen Connolly). What the character’s names are makes no difference, as they’re simply lambs to the slaughter.
Meanwhile, in a boring looking research lab, scientists, mid-level managers and other assorted corporate wonks are gearing up for an experiment. And hey, they’re watching our kids! This can’t bode well for our five, can it? Of course it can’t.
Any game-changing can be easily deduced from the opening title sequence. At least it was for this nerd who took a year’s worth of undergrad mythology classes. But Whedon does manage to do what he does best, and as he skewers theatergoer’s expectations there are plenty of bits of enjoyment. Blondes, potheads and virgins all get a fresh coat of paint, and a fun send-up. So do the usual “morality play” rules of the horror genre. However, a tweak and a giggle here and there doesn’t change the fact that this movie feels like a few great ideas that Whedon cobbled together. Scenes go back and forth between the kids and the facility, and I couldn’t stop thinking about The Initiative in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or the underground corporation of Dollhouse. Whedon loves him some clandestine operations. His take on any overlarge assembly is that it will ultimately become a huge bureaucratic mess. And he ain’t wrong. But with The Cabin in the Woods, there’s no real backstory on anything, and so the kids we’re all supposed to root for left me cold. I wanted to be back at the research lab with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Maybe because that seemed like a safer place than the woods, but mostly because it seemed like more fun.
There are moments that made me think that there was a better movie in here, somewhere. As shown in the trailer for the film, the surviving stereotypes do take the elevator down…into a wild set of cages and glass rooms that reminded me of The Cube or 2001’s Thirteen Ghosts. Sigourney Weaver has a cameo that felt like a breath of fresh air (after the mashup of ideas started to implode). The whiteboard in the research lab…I don’t want to spoil things, but just read the item list to find a few genre-friendly surprises.
That this movie has gotten so much positive buzz at SXSW isn’t hard to guess. We genre nerds love us some Whedon. And we’re so starved for a decent horror film that doesn’t think we’re as brain-dead as the idiot characters that run upstairs to avoid the killer, that were willing to accept just about anything at this point. The Cabin in the Woods is a satisfying treat for viewers that want to wash the taste of crappy torture porn out of their mouths. But don’t be surprised if you’re left craving something more.