Self-conscious horror movies have almost become an industry standard. I suppose it started with the Scream franchise, which poked fun at the slasher genre while at the same time actually being a slasher movie. Then came Eli Roth, whose movies are basically straight horror films, but then suddenly become comedies at the end, as if to point out the absurdity of the whole genre. Last year saw the release of my personal favorite entry in this burgeoning sub-genre, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, and now comes the similarly themed The Cabin in the Woods, from the minds of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame.
I can't possibly discuss this movie, or why I despised it so vehemently, without massive spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned. But since my aim here is to forewarn you against seeing this movie, I think you should ignore the previous forewarning and just read this review anyway. Trust me, I'm doing you a gigantic favor here.
I knew I would hate it more or less from the first scene. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, two actors I normally like quite a bit, play a pair of office workers, in one of those office scenes meant to draw attention to the mundanity of the situation in order to comically juxtapose it with some sort of extraordinary twist. It's such a commonplace set-up that I can generally spot them right off. These scenes invariably start with one of the office workers complaining about some banal element of his personal life, usually involving his wife, so the writers can assure us that these guys are Just Like Us before pulling the rug out and revealing there's much more to them than meets the eye. It's such a trite affectation that professional, experienced writers really should know better by now.
In this case, the "twist" is that these guys work for a vast organization that manipulates college students into vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, which is essentially just an elaborate TV studio (think The Truman Show in the forest) where the kids are set up as sacrificial lambs for whatever horrors they unwittingly unleash. In other words, they create real-life horror movies. It's a meta-horror movie, in which the standard tropes of the genre are all explained away as the machinations of this mysterious corporation whose motives are only gradually revealed to us (I'll get to that in a minute).
So, for example, the creepy gas station attendant that the protagonists encounter at the beginning of just about every horror movie ever made is here revealed to be an actor. And the creepy cabin has an even creepier basement that They Shouldn't Go Into, but of course they do, and they find it loaded with all sorts of props culled from the horror genre: an old diary containing a spell for raising the dead, a music box, a puzzle reminiscent of the one from Hellraiser, and so on. The idea here is that the puppetmasters are allowing the kids to choose the means of their own demise.
This is all very "wink wink, nudge nudge," and it's not particularly clever. It's bad parody because it originates from a flawed premise. It implies that horror movie tropes need to be explained away to account for either their uniformity or their sheer stupidity, or both. But... why? What is it about Hellraiser, or Evil Dead, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or any of the other innumerable films it references, that needs an explanation beyond what is provided?
Indeed, the explanation here makes far less sense than the movies they're parodying. Are you ready for it? These college kids are being sacrificed to some sort of evil, demonic god, who will destroy the world if he is not appeased. And they can't simply be killed, they have to suffer first, hence the elaborate charade. That's it. That's the explanation.
It's the complete lack of creativity behind this explanation that really infuriates me. This movie is, by its nature, setting itself up as being the superior of silly horror films, giving us a knowing wink while explaining why horror movies all seem to lack imagination. But there's nothing imaginative here, either. They've simply replaced one dumb premise with another dumb premise. What is this movie saying, exactly? How does its absurdly contrived, diabolus ex machina conceit relate to horror movie cliches? It doesn't. The writers simply needed something to tie everything together, so Giant Evil God it was. Really guys? Giant Evil God? That's the best you could come up with?
All of this would be forgivable if the movie was actually well made, but it's not. It has the same bad acting as the horror movies it mocks, and the same bad casting choices (why, for instance, cast the 30-year-old and impossibly good-looking Jesse Williams as the "brainy" college student? I don't remember that ever being a horror movie cliche). The lack of naturalistic acting and dialogue kills any sense of contrast between the real world and this artificial world in which the characters find themselves trapped. The same goes for the hackneyed camera work. Indeed, the camera never seems
to be positioned where it needs to be to heighten a scene's effectiveness. Everything is telegraphed for
us, so there are no surprises or even mild suspense. This movie needed to rise above its subject matter, and the movies it spoofs, for it to work at all, and it not only failed to do this, it didn't even make an attempt.
And even this would be forgivable if the movie was funny. Heck, I would have taken mildly amusing or droll. But it's none of these things. It's filled with the same groan-inducing one-liners that made Buffy and Firefly so insufferable to me (Whedon fans, feel free to ignore this review... there's no way you won't love this movie). I'm a big comic book geek, but this movie is seriously making me question my desire to see The Avengers (especially since Whedon directed it as well as wrote it, and Serenity was... not my favorite sci-fi film).
In the end, this movie doesn't accomplish anything that Tucker and Dale and the Scream movies didn't already cover, and with more intelligence and wit. Aside from, I suppose, the climactic "Who's Who?" monster melee, which I guess is satisfying in a geek-out sort of way. But it also betrays the film's true purpose, placing it in the company of Freddy vs. Jason and Aliens vs. Predator. It's a self-indulgent geek trip, and frankly I've had enough of self-indulgent geek trips.