Saturday, April 14, 2012

Spoilers Ain't Shit and They Ain't Sayin' Nothin' (But See "Cabin in the Woods" Before You Read This Anyway)

I normally don't care about writing "spoilers" about movies that have opened. I'm not going to sneak-attack people with them, I observe a proper Twitter grace period and am appropriately vague, but once a movie has opened, you either need to see it or not read about it until you have. And I'm not going to avoid writing "spoilers" in this post either. You clicked to read a post about Cabin in the Woods, so I'm going to talk about Cabin in the Woods.

But first I'm going to say this: see it first. Even if you're the type of person who can enjoy a movie perfectly well if you know what's coming. Even if you think you've already heard about the "secrets" behind this movie. Even if you think you don't care about whatever those "secrets" are. Because the thing with Cabin in the Woods -- and the reason so many of the advance critics and festival-goers were so diligent about clamming up before it was released, I think -- is that there isn't a "secret." Not one secret anyway. And not one that's sprung on the audience at the last minute, when they're not supposed to be expecting it. I remember I saw The Sixth Sense before I heard what the big twist at the end was. But I had heard for weeks that there WAS a twist. Nobody would reveal it, but you couldn't escape the chatter that there was something BIG at the end that you wouldn't see coming. So of course I watched the movie -- a movie I loved and still love -- constantly looking for what the twist would be. I ended up figuring it out not long before the end, and I guess I was proud of myself for putting it together (and impressed with the movie for making it hold up to scrutiny so well), but I also kind of wished I knew little enough to be truly surprised.

As I said, there is no one "twist" in Cabin in the Woods, so you're not going to spend the whole time looking for a gotcha, but I still think there is huge value in letting the movie go in all the directions it's going to go without knowing any of them. So I'll just say it one more time: see the movie, then come back and read about it. After all, if there's anything I know about the internet, it's that it is forever and not at all fleeting!

So about the actual movie: I was actually not sold on Cabin in the Woods in the first half hour. Big advance hype makes me nervous, and I've learned I especially can't trust hype on Mutant Enemy material, because people want Joss to succeed so badly that it distorts things. And at the outset, Cabin is so forthright about not being a horror movie so much as the deconstruction of a horror movie that I thought it would end up being a good joke that nonetheless would suck all the air out of the suspense required to make an actual horror movie. Like, "Yes, I see how you're pinpointing all the horror tropes and giving us a glimpse into just how much horror movies have to engineer human behavior so that the dumb hunks and slutty chicks end up doing exactly the wrong thing and are utterly unable to keep themselves from being slaughtered," but what's the point? Ultimately, I thought seeing behind the curtain would end up being a suspense-killing mistake because that curtain exists for a reason. But right at that 30-minute mark (or therabouts; when they're all in the basement and the diary gets read), the behind-the-curtain stuffs stops being a winky-jokey relief from the tension and instead becomes an element that enhances and complicates the tension. From there, a series of very clever decisions are made so that what results is an incredibly satisfying blend of horror and comedy. So let's get to bullet-pointing:

-- The drugs that make the college kids dumber: The joke is, of course, that characters in horror movies make the stupidest decision possible in order to keep the plot moving and get the meat-sacks where they need to be to maximize carnage. (For the record, Scream did this to great effect years ago.) In Cabin, this means the engineers of the carnage utilize various chemical whatsits that make the characters hornier, more reckless, and less intuitive to general survival instincts (the smart decision to all stick together, then, gets abandoned for the old "we can cover more ground if we split up" trope). The really smart thing about how this gets carried out is that we meet these five people before the drugs kick in. We can tell what types they're supposed to be (one look at Chris Hemsworth and Fran Kranz and you know they're the jock and the weirdo burnout, obviously), but they all exhibit enough characteristics of well-rounded, three-dimensional people that you end up caring about them. AND their devolution into "types" ends up being as much a commentary on movies in general as horror movies specifically.

-- The movie sweats the details. Good meta horror (the Scream franchise, Eli Roth's better stuff) endears itself to its audience because it proves that it's made by fans of the genre. The little things count. Maybe my favorite part of the movie lasts about a second and would be missed by taking an ill-timed glance at the popcorn bucket: after one of the kids dispatches a murderous undead creature with a dagger, the engineers emit a tiny electric shock, causing the girl to drop the weapon. Anybody's who's ever screamed at an idiot protagonist for dropping a gun or throwing a knife across the room in horror while there's still a totally excellent chance that more bad shit is on the way will know why I loved that so much.

-- It's more than just a framing device. Again, my concern was that we'd get the "real" stuff -- the cabin stuff -- and that the behind-the-cabin stuff would be winky comic relief. But gradually, the BTS stuff develops stakes, the lines start to blur, and pretty soon the divide ceases to exist. No ironic distance. It's still funny (the unicorn!) but there's no safe harbor to be found.

-- I'm not sure I'll laugh as loudly or as long at a movie all year as I did during the second look at the Japanese horror scenario.

If I'm going to quibble about anything, I'll quibble about the effects. This is a no-budget movie, and when it comes to presenting the ultimate rogue's gallery of nightmare creatures, that budget starts to show. I don't know what it is with Joss Whedon and giant snakes, but maybe he just needs to direct an animated movie called Snakey: The Snake That Ate Some Cities and get it out of his system, because every time he brings a giant snake into one of his live-action projects, it just looks video-gamey as hell. The general rule is that the more practical the ghoul, the better it comes across. That Hellraiser guy didn't even DO anything and he'll be haunting my nightmares.

But on balance, it's a BLAST of a movie. Fun and funny and scary and satisfying. Hemsworth looking foxy as hell before his extra Thor bulk. Jesse Williams looking foxy as hell by simply putting on some glasses. And of course my darling Topher from Dollhouse, who's really good at being weird and relatable at the same time. Plus lots of Whedon-friendly cameos, the most I've liked Bradley Whitford in literally years, and the most creative use of a bear trap I've seen in a movie ... ever? I'll say ever. It's just a fun movie, and an unexpected movie, and considering roar of praise I've been hearing about it for two months, that's a minor miracle itself. YOU BETTER HAVE SEEN IF BEFORE READING THIS.