Sunday, April 22, 2012

Giving Us What We Need -- Reflections on "The Cabin in the Woods" (2012)

My ideal vacation home...

I just watched an interview with Noel Gallagher, the foul mouthed, politically incorrect former lead singer of the British rock band Oasis. “Fuck the customers,” he proclaimed. “They don’t know what they want. We have to tell them what they want.” Throughout the interview, he made it crystal clear that he believe focus groups are destroying the music industry, turning art into something quickly and forgettably consumed. The fashion industry, he added, doesn’t care what people think, and as a result they keep moving forward, keep pushing boundaries, and keep challenging the tastes and attitudes of people.

The movie industry is a much easier target than the music industry for these comments. While the internet has given independent musicians a bigger voice than ever, movies have still largely been a major studio game, with the occasional indie studio making ripples. Focus groups, demographic research, polling, and all the stuff that studios do to see if a movie can be successful have watered down product, led to more and more sequels, and taken away the voice of filmmakers.

It’s this thinking that kept Cabin in the Woods on the shelf for two years, sitting in developmental hell until, like a tortured redneck zombie, it managed to rise from the grave and find its way into a wide-release. How this happened will someday make a good special feature on the Blu-ray, or even a decent chapter in the Joss Whedon biography, but for now we need to be thankful that whomever at Lionsgate decided to take the chance on this guaranteed cult classic took that risk.

Cabin in the Woods is a wildly inventive, risk-taking horror film. It ranks right up there with Freaks, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, Evil Dead 2, and Scream in the pantheon of genre altering movies. It is at once a deconstruction of the horror genre, and a loving embrace of it. It is nihilistic in its execution, yet optimistic about the future of horror. And It has a wicked sense of humor that we haven’t seen since Raimi hung up the jock strap on the Evil Dead franchise.

As a narrative, director/writer Drew Goddard, and geek god Joss Whedon, have crafted an intricate puzzle that demands repeat viewings, is filled with layer upon layer of meaning and subtext, and ends with a climax jaw dropping in its ambition as it is startling in its implications. The performances, especially Fran Kranz as Marty, the resident pothead and stoned theorist, are terrific and perfectly calibrated for the story being told. This film is as perfect as a horror film can get.

And did I mention that it is scary? It is definitely a scary film, but in an unexpected, more disturbing way than the trailers would lead you to believe. If you go into this movie expecting the chills and jump scares of movies like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and a legion of other PG-13 frightfests, you will be disappointed. The scares in this film challenge you and force you to face the role you play in watching horror films. The intent is not finger pointing, or to make you feel guilty for bloodlust; the intent is one of revelation.

I think the message Whedon and Goddard (Cloverfield) are sending here is that we need horror films.

What is the film about? This is supposed to be the paragraph where I give you a basic scenario to set-up the film’s story and basic themes. About all I am willing to say is that it is a film about a group of kids on their way to a cabin in the woods to enjoy a weekend being young, and that things don’t go according to their plan. Things go according to someone else’s plan…or do they? That question is what’s really at the heart of this film, and to say more is to spoil the experience for you.

No other film this year has had a more distinctive voice than Cabin in the Woods. Whether you end up loving it or not, it will be remembered as the Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard show. This is their film entirely, and they take ownership of every moment with a loving care we don’t commonly see from mass-market studio horror films. There was no need for a focus group on this one. This film doesn't give us what we want; it gives us what we need.

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