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.

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