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April 21, 2012

10

Movie Review – The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

by NIR SHALEV

It’s literally impossible to review The Cabin in the Woods without revealing the tiniest spoiler. Therefore I issue a tiny warning, but then again if you’ve seen the trailer you already know that this is not the typical ’80s slasher horror film.

The film opens with a couple of scientists, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford). We follow them as they navigate through a secret scientific facility. They converse about the most mundane daily activities, including child-proofing one’s drawers at home, and then the title of the film jumps at us abruptly, and at the wrong moment, and scares the audience. It’s a funny sequence, it’s effective, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Next we meet the five main characters, each embodying a cliche: the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slut (Anna Hutchison), the virgin (Kristen Connolly), the stoner/philosopher (Fran Kranz), and the handsome straight-A student (Jesse Williams). The jock’s cousin had let them use his cabin in the woods during their school break and they travel there via RV. They make the obvious pit-stop at the derelict gas station that’s run by the local redneck, who takes no guff from anyone, and especially not from college kids, and eventually get to the cabin. There, things go awry just like in traditional ’80s slasher films.

What connection do the scientists have to the college kids? They monitor the cabin with many hidden cameras and produce horror film cliches on cue. The reason for this I leave to you to discover, but if you pay close attention during the opening of the film you’ll figure it out early on like I did.

Suddenly, the trap door to the basement swings open, scaring the group and we hear one of them say, “It must have been the wind.” The jock, who is a sociology major and a brainiac, suddenly dumbs down and tells the group that “they should split up because they’d be able to cover more ground.” There’s a good reason for all this and for why redneck zombies make an appearance as well. This is far more of a comedy than it is a standard horror film. I like the moments early on where we’re told that the main characters are not typical slasher film cliches but then they turn into them when they arrive at the cabin. Also, the best parts of the film are all of the scenes that involve the scientists; and I don’t want to ruin any of them because there lie the best and also funniest moments.

The Cabin in the Woods is a meta-centric, deconstructionist horror/comedy that’s directed and written by Drew Goddard, the writer of Cloverfield (a film that I utterly detest) and co-written by Joss Whedon (writer/direct of the upcoming The Avengers film). The goofiness of the film and the “cleverness” of the situations are definitely the mark of Whedon’s writing but the film suffers from being nothing more than an intriguing, albeit original concept that’s ultimately, heavily predictable.

While the college kids are in the woods and are fending for their lives, living through one cliche after another and being chased by cliched monsters, the film even visually resembles moments from Friday the 13th (any of them), The Hills Have Eyes (any of them), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Piranha (1978), and a few others.

Now, the reason that the film doesn’t completely work is because even though eventually everything that’s happened is explained, I was still left with all of the questions that I had from the start of the film. The story’s concept is neat but the script doesn’t tell the audience why everything happened and the way that it did. I asked the film “why?” at frequent intervals and by the end of it I hadn’t received a single answer. Upon reminiscing and deconstructing the happenings of the film during the past few days I found that I had more questions than answers and realize that the film doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Although I don’t know why anything happened that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. The concept, the scientists, and the final 20 minutes make the film worth watching and it’s nice to see a meta-centric film that doesn’t annoy simply because it’s meta. Many films nowadays, mostly found-footage films, are meta-centric and have grown tiresome rather quickly but this film plays it for fun and right from the get go. There isn’t a single moment of realism or a serious tone to be found and that’s a step in the right direction.

Were those classic ’80s slasher films realistic in any way? No. Were they entertaining? Absolutely. Therefore, the formula works only if you know how to have fun with cheesy material and how to twist it, and Goddard and Whedon most certainly do. This is a fun film but don’t ask it any questions. It’s a one-way transmission.

3 stars


10 Comments Post a comment
  1. greg
    Apr 21 2012

    Good, solid, review.

  2. Apr 21 2012

    @greg, thank you.

  3. Aaron Ploof
    Apr 23 2012

    I guess one of the reasons why the film doesn’t make sense is because it’s not supposed to, and I don’t fault it for that. It embraces its horror cliches, the top one being the whole impracticality of it all and the flimsiness of the plot. That being said, I love the fact that the writers just throw everything into the mix and don’t worry about tying up loose ends.

    Because honestly, how many loose ends are tied up in horror films these days?

  4. Apr 23 2012

    @Aaron, true. That’s why the last 20 minutes were awesome. :O)

    And how awesome were all of the segments with the scientists (no spoilers!)? :OD

  5. Apr 24 2012

    The most concerning thing I take away from this review is…you detest Cloverfield!!

    How can this be??? (Stated in a loud, confused, tragically hurt tone)

  6. Apr 24 2012

    @Jeff, lol. I hate Cloverfield for many reasons. Let’s see: it’s, roughly a $30 million film that was meant to look like it was shot with a camcorder and that always annoys me. It was shot almost entirely in L.A. and it could have been shot on location and for much cheaper because then you’d have far less CG architecture.

    I have watched every shaky camera movie in theatres, from The Blair Witch Project to 28 Days Later (in which I still admit that I couldn’t see most of what was going on in that film because of the camera shaking) to The Bourne Ultimatum and it never phased me. Cloverfield is the first film that made me feel uneasy. As early as when the cast entered the subway I felt like I was going to puke, and I put my head down between my legs. The feeling came and went periodically throughout the rest of the film.

    I also hate that most of what happens in the film doesn’t make any sense. The group doesn’t go for help, they trek through many New York blocks just to see if one other girls is still alive and after climbing 40+ floors of a building that’s leaning onto another (yeah, very safe and, magically it never topples), when they find her, she’s impaled on a large metallic shrapnel. They remove her from the shrapnel and she’s perfectly fine. They even walk down 40+ floors of the opposite building back down to the ground floor and she never bleeds out; also, another girl is walking barefoot through glass and debris.

    They also survive a terrible helicopter crash.

    The camera shakes so violently throughout the film I wonder why the protagonist doesn’t just shut it off. In that film he has no reason record everything and when he believes that “he needs to record everything” he never shuts off the camera. Not even while running. And how does the battery last so long? 2 hours tops.

    I really hate that film. I even rented the Blu-ray when it came out and rewatched it with the commentary track and all of the special features afterwards. The shot the film with the Panasonic P2, which I shot with in film school. It’s a $3000 camera. So why the $30 million dollar budget? And why not use an actual camcorder like in 28 Days later?

    I REALLY hate Cloverfield. I hated every character in it, hated the creature design, and hated that the protagonist doesn’t shut off the camera when running.

    Here are a couple of great films for you: Rec 1 and 2. In those films, the camera operators shut off the camera while running (sometimes the editor does so in the post production stages) and they’re great films in general. :O)

  7. Apr 25 2012

    Like Scotch, you either love it or HATE it. There is no middle ground for the movie Cloverfield. I have two conversation with people about the movie; defender of the piece or lovefest. I’m not a huge fan of the horror/slasher genre of movies, but I find that Cloverfield falls into the formula of most of the slasher movies, young people find themselves in an absurd situation that propels them to continue in the downward spiral for no clear reason. I HATE slasher movies for this reason, or maybe the over the top death sense, but I LOVE this movie for those reasons.

    I agree, the camera work is a bit annoying. I accept that is the lens Matt Reeves chose to film the movie in. At this point the audience has their first choice to either love or HATE the movie. Some people chose the HATE option as the vertigo had them chumming the restroom toilet. Others decided to keep moving forward as our band of disaffected youth continue their celebration. Yes, there is the point in the movie we all ask, “Why are they going to save the girl that will lead to all of them dying anyway instead of exiting stage right?” How can a video recorders battery possibly last that long? Why don’t they take any of the abandoned cars on the street? Where are the abandoned cars on the street? Why didn’t the girl bleed out while she was impaled or better yet, why didn’t she bleed out after they lifted her off the steel bar? Instead of trying to understand the plausibility of the situation, I swallowed the green pill and went with the movie.

    As far as the actors (disclaimer: I love Lizzy Caplan), most are forgettable, some are clearly annoying, you begin to cheer for Cloverfield to end their miserable suffering, and I’m there with most people. I think this is the brilliant part of the movie, I can’t wait for the next inevitable death scene. Just like the hack and slash genre, characters choose to do some of the dumbest things and the audience screams, “No, don’t go in there”. Heck, for weeks after watching Paranormal Activity, if I heard a noise in the house and I couldn’t explain it, I jumped in the car left. There aren’t a lot of movies to watch if characters used reason and sound judgment, most would be categorized as short films.

    To your point about the budget, I can only assume it is wrapped up in CGI. They didn’t get a free pass to use ILM to create their monster and effects, so I assume the route they took wasn’t cheap. That said, it is estimated they grossed six to seven times the production cost. In general, not a large amount of money, but the studio was happy and JJ Abrams has been off to the races with bigger and “maybe” better projects since Cloverfield.

    Lastly, the main character. Ok, not the most exciting giant monster destroying an urban metropolis, but the creators had to come up with something besides a guy or gal in a rubber suit. I wasn’t blown away by the character design, but I didn’t loathe it. It’s also a genre piece that is hard to sell. Giant monster attacks and destroys city. From word go you’ve eliminated two-thirds of the movie going population. You can only enjoy it if you accept the premise and a lot of people, simply put, can’t.

    I understand the HATE that can be felt or directed at Cloverfield, but it’s about perspective for me. I want to like it so I do. I LOVED the Godzilla movies. As horrible as some of them were (Baby Godzilla, I’m looking at you) I’m drawn to them as a guilty pleasure. This movie, from the right perspective might not be that bad to most. I won’t wager a lot of money on that misguided belief, I have yet to persuade any Cloverfield HATER.

    That said, can’t wait to see The Cabin in the Woods!

  8. Apr 26 2012

    Nice. :O)

    I have only watched one real Godzilla film (obviously not counting Roland Emmerich’s piece of $!@#) and that’s “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962). I saw it when I was a teenager and I liked it because King Kong had won the fight and I like King Kong (the character and both the original film and its remake).

    I walked into “Cloverfield” believing it to be yet another disaster/survival horror film and that’s exactly what I got. I don’t like disaster films or survival horror films because they’re boring and stupid and I’ve yet to see a good one (that excludes “A Night to Remember” (1958)).

    I also don’t see how one can refer to Cloverfield as a slasher film. There isn’t a single creepy (sometimes masked) villain that stalks teenagers and bumps them off one by one; “Cloverfield” has a giant monster that stalks the streets of Manhattan, and we know from early on that most people in that city are going die.

    I, too wanted to like “Cloverfield” because it received a huge positive critical consensus but I found that myself growing bored (whenever I looked up at the screen) and by its end I didn’t care for a single character in the film. Even today I don’t remember any of them not do I remember the actors that played in that film. I don’t think that any of them were popular actors, or even really actors, which is a double edged sword; non-actors can sometimes ruin films with their lack of acting abilities.

    There exist very few films that I hate but “Cloverfield” is one of them. I wasn’t thrilled because I couldn’t see anything; the creature design was mostly obscured (maybe because of the budget) but looked crappy anyway; I didn’t care for any of the characters or remember any of them after the film was over (what makes them more important than other characters and why should we follow them?); and almost everything that’s happened, step by step, actions-wise was implausible.

    Around the same time there appeared another film in theatres which I loved and still do; it’s George A. Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” (2007). It’s a “non-shaky camera” film that basically retells “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) but in the year 2007. It’s a social commentary on how North America would treat an oncoming zombie apocalypse during the internet age. The main group of characters (film school students who are out in the woods shooting a horror film) carry not one but two cameras, allowing the audience to see the camera operator(s) for the first time in a found footage film, and they never shake it. They never run with it, either. Whenever a single zombie or a group of them appear, the camera operator point the zombies out to the group, steps back and frames the carnage that’s to ensue. They even find ways to recharge the camera batteries. That’s a great zombie film (in which I also hate zombie films because they also bore me) and it’s a great “non-shaky camera” film. :O)

  9. Doc
    Apr 30 2012

    Whedon’s message is that genre movies have a very restricted logic, and that our choices are thus limited to a series of stock images. Yet he also shows that because we love the formulas and images, we can have great fun within them. This is the great comic opera H P Lovecraft would have written if he had been hired by the Cthulhu for President Committee.

  10. Apr 30 2012

    As the week went by I have lost my respect for this film for two reasons: 1) it doesn’t make any sense in any regard, and 2) the cabin sequences showcase why slasher films are mostly terrible but become a terrible slasher film sequences as a result.

    I like only half of the film, the parts with the scientists and the action and gore during the final 20 minutes. I am seriously considering tweaking this review a tad bit…

    “The Cabin in the Woods” is another one of those films that looks and feels fun while you’re watching it but the moment that you leave the theatre you start to notice just how little sense it makes, and that lowers your respect for it. I was too favourable in my review for it, I admit that now.

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