By Brian Lafferty
April 13, 2012 (San Diego) – The plot synopsis is the easiest part of writing film criticism. It’s also my least favorite. It puts a crimp on word counts; far too often I’ve had to jettison entire paragraphs of criticism to begrudgingly accommodate it.
But they are a necessary evil. Readers need them. Faithful readers might notice I devote only one paragraph to plot summary. Why should I waste at least a quarter of my word count on describing plot that people could easily find on the Internet Movie Database? I’m infinitely more interested in actual film criticism than I am in synopsizing the plot.
At this point I would tell you what the movie is about. Not this time. Cabin in the Woods is a film so full of twists and turns, that to reveal even one morsel would severely diminish the experience of watching it for the first time.
Normally I don’t do this, but I strongly advise you to stop reading here and go see it. I will not reveal major plot points, but writing this review requires much tiptoeing and there’s no guarantee I won’t say too much, even accidentally. You’ll get a lot more out of what I have to say after you watch it than before, so go see it now and then check back in.
When John Landis pitched his screenplay of An American Werewolf in London, he was told that it was too scary to be a comedy and too funny to be a horror film. They were right, but American Werewolf worked as a horror-comedy for precisely that reason. Cabin in the Woods is similarly successful because it cannot be classified exclusively as either a horror or comedy. Co-writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon don’t alternate between frightening and funny. Instead, they mesh the two together.
The laughter and scares derive primarily from familiar horror film conventions. Let’s take the “creepy room” scene. Usually bereft of light, the room is filled with old newspaper clippings detailing horrific crimes of yesteryear, unsettling family photographs, and dolls that only a child like Rhoda Penmark would play with.
Thirty years ago horror films would have played this scenario purely for scares. In subsequent years, its overuse eventually rendered it a cliché. Screenwriters can play it straight, but it takes a lot of invention and craft to transcend its cliché status, especially for veteran horror filmgoers who have seen a lot.
Cabin has fun with these conventions. It doesn’t outright parody them; writers Goddard and Whedon play it straight. Editor Lisa Lassek unpredictably cuts each take, which made me apprehensive. Composer David Julyan’s score is straight out of the School of Horror Film Music, but it functions simultaneously as parody and fear-inducer.
Shivers rushed through me, and I had to cover my eyes several times. But I consistently laughed because 1) I was familiar with these familiar horror film conventions and over time, those conventions have crossed the border into self-parody and 2) Because the suspense made me feel uneasy and the only way I could react was to giggle.
Peter Deming’s cinematography sets the mood with mostly dark interiors and exteriors, save for orange-red candlelight and moonlight. It’s like being around a campfire in the woods while a friend tells scary stories. The special effects are simple and none-too-extravagant, keeping in line with its contented B-movie ambition.
If you are still reading this review and you have yet to see Cabin, I hope I didn’t give too much away. I implore you to not let your friends talk to you about it unless you’ve seen it. It’s one of those films that people cannot wait to discuss. I hope your friends can wait.
Cabin in the Woods is now playing in wide release.
A Lionsgate release. Director: Drew Goddard. Screenplay: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. Original Music: David Julyan. Cinematography: Peter Deming. Cast: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, and Amy Acker. 95 minutes. Rated R.