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Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods

A 'Cabin' with many rooms, all dark
The Cabin in the Woods
Genres: Horror, Thriller
Running Time: 95 min
Release Date: 2012-04-13
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By "By Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

Here's what I can tell you about "The Cabin in the Woods." There's a remote cabin. It is, in fact, in nearly inaccessible woods. And some kind of international agency has sent five kids there to their almost certain doom, and its employees are especially jovial about the process.

Virtually anything else, from plot details to explanations meant to entice you into this inventive scarefest, will give things away. And the film's main virtue, a large virtue indeed, is that it does not give anything away before its shockingly apt time. (Tell you what, though: I'll salt three of my sentences with clues that will make you an insider, if you find and decipher them.)

Most horror movies adhere to genre conventions, subvert them or spoof them. Producer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay together, do all three at top speed.

Thus we see five students pile into an RV en route to the cabin, and they’re the usual horror archetypes: the virgin (Kristen Connolly), the athlete (Chris Hemsworth), the loose girl (Anna Hutchison), the stoner (Fran Kranz) and the scholar (Jesse Williams).

They meet a harbinger of craziness to come, the typical tobacco-spittin' redneck at an abandoned store who makes ominous references to their destination. But as soon as they leave, he calls his corporate bosses (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) to pronounce doom on these five sinners – and to complain that, once again, the two have put him on speakerphone for fellow employees to mock.

The random observations made by these white-collar guys throughout the film, few of which make sense at the time, finally fit together in a grand and terrifying puzzle.

I love craft like this in the writing, so it's disappointing to notice flaws here and there: At least two small elements of the set-up get invalidated by things that happen later, and these ordinary college kids aren't incapacitated by six-inch knives in the back or head traumas that would crumple the front end of an earth-mover. (I know that's true of badly made horror films, but I don’t believe Goddard and Whedon mean for us to recall those here.)

The filmmakers satisfy audiences that hunger for gore, but they're more interested in psychological games. (This isn't torture porn.) When the movie finally does go into crimson overdrive, the result's too absurd to be gross.

"Cabin" alludes to other scary/comic films, starting with the choice of cinematographer Peter Deming. (He shot "Evil Dead 2" in Anson County 25 years ago, and this cabin looks like a less rickety version of that one.) A guy toys with a "Hellraiser"-style box; a Japanese ghost pays mock tribute to "The Ring." A black guard named Truman (Brian White), the only person to show compassion for the students – he's a true man, get it? – recalls the stalwart African-American hero of "Night of the Living Dead."

Yet for all the mythologizing and in-jokes and genre-bending, Whedon and Goddard have at least one serious, disturbing idea in mind.

The orchestrators of mayhem at the cabin, whose motives remain obscure for a long time, delight in the chaos they've caused. They toast each other with champagne over the screams, while the students fight for their lives.

They're voyeurs of the creepiest sort, and we can afford to be disgusted by them – until we realize they're stand-ins for horror fans who take vicarious pleasure in the suffering of others. Toss around words such as "catharsis" and "outlet for destructive impulses" all you like, but that is one nasty realization.

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04/12/12 - The Charlotte Observer - By Lawrence Toppman

Here's what I can tell you about "The Cabin in the Woods." There's a remote cabin. It is, in fact, in nearly inaccessible woods. And some kind of international agency has sent five kids there to their almost certain doom.

(Full review)
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