Friday, October 31, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: The Cabin in the Woods

I’m not sure what the strangest element of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is: its fusion of two aesthetically different narratives, its batshit crazy last quarter of an hour, the sight of Chris Hemsworth – at pretty much the same point in his career that he beefed up like a motherfucker for ‘Thor’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ – playing an expendable college jock, or the fact that a script by Joss Whedon, to whom the uber-budgeted ‘Avengers’ had just been trusted, was happily handed over to a novice director. 

To Drew Goddard’s credit, though, he turns in a proficient piece of work. True, there’s nothing going on here that’s particularly groundbreaking from a directorial point of view, but there doesn’t have to be. The pleasures of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ lie in the audience’s familiarity with genre tropes.

The film kicks off with a cryptic bit of narrative between Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), employees of an unidentified corporation which seems to operate like any other twenty-first century corporation with all of the office politics, casual cynicism, douchebag colleagues, inter-departmental rivalry and general all-round wankerish behaviour that said workplace environment suggests. It soon becomes clear, though, that Sitterson and Hadley’s behaviour – running a book on the outcome of their commission, drinking at work, using the IT system for frankly voyeuristic purposes – masks a desperation that is only contextualised when the nature of the business and the identity of the client is revealed.

Whedon and Goddard’s script is a masterpiece of lacunae: they know exactly how much detail to reveal vis-à-vis Sitterson and Hadley’s responsibilities, and in doing so sketch them in as fully formed characters rather than shadowy eminences grises. The script’s courtesies also extend to the five teenagers who head off for a weekend at the titular retreat in the film’s main narrative strand. The quintet comprises athletic hunky type Curt (Hemsworth) and his flirtatious airhead girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), studious nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), sensible girl next door type Dana (Kristen Connolly) and comic relief stoner Marty (Fran Kranz). And, yes, they all conform to those very same stereotypes. But the screenplay and a cluster of likeable performances gel to raise them above mere cliché.

Having said that, cliché is important to ‘The Cabin in the Woods’. Cliché is the fuel that kicks its plot mechanics into overdrive. And this is where I’m swiftly going to curtail the review, because the film works best if you’ve absolutely no idea where it’s headed. The interplay between the two narrative strands suggests a satire on reality TV à la Marc Evans’s ‘My Little Eye’, but Whedon and Goddard play their hand quite spectacularly and to entirely different effect during the last reel.

The cast embrace the material exuberantly, Hemsworth and Williams keeping it deadpan, Kranz having a hell of a lot of fun as the pothead whose recreational habit ends up being a plot device in and of itself, Jenkins and Whitford playing off each in fine style, and Connolly proving an immensely resilient and likeable final girl. The effects work is good, all lo-fi ‘Evil Dead’ style makeup in the first half, followed by an extravaganza of fan boy homages towards the end. The very last shot is a punchline too far, but by this point there’s no real mileage in carping. By this point, twists and turns and piss-takes (the J-horror send-up is a joy to behold) and a ‘Paul’-style last minute celebrity cameo have given ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ everything it needs to prove itself as the ideal beer-and-pizza movie for the post-modern smartarse generation. Plus, as Mrs F advocates, the Hemsworth is mighty fine.

This is The Agitation of the Mind’s fifth annual 13 For Halloween signing off on a note of unapologetic homoeroticism. Happy Halloween, folks. 

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