Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I the Jury: The Cabin in the Woods

The charges:  Betraying a clever premise, Disappointing resolution, Cliché characterization.

The Verdict:  Not Guilty!

The Ruling:  The Cabin in the Woods is a very clever film, setting up a premise that allows not only the use of horror film conventions at will, but actually executes them very effectively.  It walks that tightrope between being funny and being tense and scary all at once.

Like 1994’s Scream, The Cabin in the Woods knows it is a genre film, even if the characters in the movie don’t ponder this fact as openly.  Every cliché and go-to technique is used, except, perhaps, the cat-jumping-out-of-a-cupboard jump-scare.  But whenever Cabin uses them, it always does so in a way that defeats the expected timing, especially with jump-scares, sometimes to use the very same one traditionally a moment later, when it suddenly works.  Other times, it carefully sets up an expected scare, and then lets it linger, but the jump never materializes at all.

Often this is done through very skilled use of the framing of shots.  The camera’s limited view has served to limit the perceptions of the characters onscreen since the dawn of film, but horror, as a genre, abuses this convention in extreme ways, most of which have become so tired that they have lost their power.  Cabin in the Woods demonstrates that this can still be done effectively, and the technical prowess of framing and composition borders on the ingenious.  The timing, too, is excellent, allowing the viewer to relax just long enough before startling them all over again.

But it also benefits from great writing.  The two technicians in the opening scene, for example, are genuinely witty, and the five soon-to-be-victims, too, are not the cardboard cutouts the audience has so long been bred to expect.  The acting supports this, as each is played very well.  The five youths fit stereotypes, of course, but that’s the entire premise, and when they defy conventions by acting intelligently and planning competent strategies, I found myself relaxing, just a little, not having to maintain an exhausting suspension of disbelief, especially since all five have been shown to be pretty smart.  It’s nice to see their cleverness stick with them when the going gets tough.

The movie isn’t perfect, though, and the extended resolution could have been tightened up, with certain scenes lingering just a tad too long on certain entities better left with less screen time.  But, in general, the movie clips along well, developing expectations and then defeating them, often within moments of each other.

Cabin in the Woods is by far the most effective film of its type I’ve seen in a long time, and will appeal to those who are looking for a flat out good time.  It’s the sort of movie that rewards an enthusiastic buy-in to the premise.  It doesn’t take the audience for granted, but instead takes them on a scary-themed thrill ride, and doesn’t pretend it isn’t just a ride.

The accused is found NOT GUILTY of all charges.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cog Noscenti

April 14th saw the long-delayed arrival of Stupefying Stories 1.5, or, as many have taken to calling it, AIFKAF (The Issue Formerly Known As February). My short story, Cog Noscenti, graces the cover. Yay for me!

I’ve already fielded questions about the cover, and no, I didn’t do the cover painting. This was the formidable David Goodman. I have done my own painting for it, though, and may post it later.

Cog Noscenti came about from a brief premise sent to me by the magazine’s publisher, Bruce Bethke. Could I write a story wherein Abraham Lincoln somehow survives his assassination attempt? Sure, I replied. No problem. Ah, optimism. The problems started immediately.

Of course, the most obvious problem (beyond a hole in the head) was an unspoken question: what would he do? There is little more depressing than a revenant without a goal. So, Lincoln is rebuilt, ala Steve Austin, and sets forth to do...

...what, exactly?

This was a dilemma. I didn’t really want to get dragged into the gritty world of Reconstruction in the South, as that didn’t seem to suit the tone of a Six-Thousand Dollar Man (cost-adjusted, of course). Like Batman’s gadgets, Lincoln’s technological resurrection hinted at a larger strata of agents, able to provide precision machining, medical skill, and a visionary mission that is intact before it is needed. For Lincoln, it would need to be secretive, yet dynamic, able to respond to the unforeseen circumstance of his assassination.

And where there is one secret society, isn’t there always another?

The initial musings I had for the story, swirling in my mind long before I began writing, was that those who had rebuilt Lincoln had done so to serve some secret, illicit agenda of their own. The story would show Lincoln’s confrontations with each, all in differing circumstances. But that, I quickly realized, was not only somewhat cliche and dull, but would require a lot of exposition explaining each motive, and how they all intended to use Lincoln originally. I entertained this idea for just a few hours before abandoning it.

Loaded with uninteresting baggage. Been there, done that, steampunk or not.

And that left me... where? Right back where I started. This, I realized, might have to be a bit more convoluted. I like convoluted.

So we now have an implied team of super agents, each drawn from history, though we only see a few on-stage in this tale. We have a secret society and its nemesis, mirror images of each other but differing in goals and methods. The story should move quickly, but not bounce around too much, and thus I have a chronological salad of events, tied together with a “present” in Paris.

And lots of historical research. Strange as it may seem, this short story took more research than any other project I’ve written. Every character, date, and location is drawn from history. Every reference and object. Every technological implement (except for the steam-borg augmentations) are historically appropriate. There was, in the middle section of the story, a sequence where I’d was checking this or that source with every new sentence. It was slow writing indeed.

In the end, I’m pleased with it, and, as is my habit, I set it up so I could write more stories in this world. Who knows what Lincoln could have done next?