Movie Review: Mum's the Word with CABIN IN THE WOODS

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Regarding Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror deconstruction Cabin in the Woods: the Internet is still abuzz (or, “atwitter,” if you will) with references alluding to the film’s big “twist.”  After seeing – and loving - Cabin in the Woods myself, I’m all for it attracting as many viewers as possible on the promise of some game-changing plot twist, even if I think the use of “twist” is grossly imprecise.

In my mind (so make of this what you will), “twist” implies some major event on which the entire film hinges; once it reveals itself, the viewer must then reconsider the events pre-twist in a different light (gee, I’m really starting to wish I knew a better synonym for “twist”).  Movies like The Sixth Sense orThe Crying Game or Planet of the Apes (the original) or Fight Club or Angel Heart/Shutter Island/Oldboy (those familiar with the three will get the joke) have twists, and Cabin in the Woods just doesn’t belong among their ranks.  At no point do you realize that the hero is actually the villain/another gender/a figment of his own imagination, or that….it was Earth all along!

Goddard and Whedon are too canny for that parlor game (let’s face it: it takes a damn good plot twist to survive repeat viewings), so they do a far more interesting thing.  As written (by Whedon and Goddard) and directed (by Goddard), Cabin in the Woods is unfailingly straight-forward; characters move the plot along in (mostly) logical ways, and we—the audience—experience a minimum of wool over our eyes.

However, the movie evolves in ways we don’t necessarily expect.  As the protagonists (Jesse Williams, Dana Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and a pre-Avengers Chris Hemsworth) learn more about their predicament, they realize not only that they are far worse off than they initially thought, but also that they aren’t even in the same predicament they thought they were in.  Again, there are no shock reveals or sudden tricks, just a gradual, deepening awareness.

And Dear Reader, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun.  My advice to you is this: avoid further reviews, avoid all marketing, and avoid—for God’s sake—the trailers that show more than they should.  Go into this one blind (although, I suppose you could check the Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes aggregate critics’ ratings, if you must.  I can always begrudge those in support of film criticism).

If you must know anything, then know this: Cabin in the Woods is Evil Dead as written by Joss Whedon.  If you liked The Avengers or “Angel” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Firefly” or “Dollhouse” or Dr. Horrible, you will like this one, guaranteed; it has Whedon’s trademark mixture of geek-friendly cult references, surprising social/moral subtext, and dialogue that can’t stop lobbing out screwball comedy-worthy zingers.

Maybe a few more choice (but spoiler-free!) tidbits about what makes the movie so special.  The effects (practical and digital) work, particularly in the last half hour.  That entire last half hour, where Cabin in the Woods moves from “good” to “great” on a rush of gonzo, feverishly unpredictable inspiration.  Every scene with Fran Kranz in it.  Every scene with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, who are the last two actors you’d expect to see in a “sexy young adults get butchered in a remote cabin” thriller and who end up walking away with the whole movie (Whitford, in particular, gets a great recurring gag that pays off in one of the picture’s funniest/ickiest moments).  The last shot, where Goddard and Whedon bring Cabin in the Woods to a close in a way that would make John Carpenter proud.

And that’s that.  Let the rest unfold like life, or (better yet!) life as only great horror can deliver, and then extinguish.  This is one of the year’s best films.

Cabin in the Woods hits Blu-ray in a solid, if imperfect, digital transfer.  Goddard and DP Peter Deming (who also shot Evil Dead 2, natch) cast their film in dark shadows and moody lighting, so some inconsistencies do crop up (black crush, digital noise), but for the most part, the transfer is clean and well defined.  More impressive is the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is subtle and immersive for the film’s first hour and then roars to life during the chaos of the final third.

Supplementary features are wonderful.  We get a chatty, wry commentary between Goddard and Whedon (and anyone familiar with the “Buffy” or “Firefly” commentaries already knows what a witty, self-effacing cat Whedon is); the PiP “It’s Not What You Think” bonus view mode; three short-but-comprehensive featurettes (“We Are Not Who We Are,” “An Army of Nightmares: Makeup and Animatronic Effects,” and “Primal Terror: Visual Effects”); the jokey “The Secret Secret Stash” feature, which contains extra insights from Whedon and star Fran Kranz; the theatrical trailer; and a half-hour WonderCon Q&A with Whedon and Goddard that, surprisingly, doesn’t repeat much of the information from the commentary.  The disc also comes with a digital copy – all in all, this is a tightly produced, informative crop of supplements.

Apologies for being coy in the review, but Cabin in the Woods is one of the best, most surprising/witty/exciting horror films to hit the screens in at least twenty years, and the less you know going into it, the better.  This one’s a rush – I guarantee.

The Cabin in the Woods Blu-ray streets on Tuesday, September 18th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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