Thursday, July 26, 2012

Funny games in the woods

"How many chainsaw massacres can one state possibly contain? One more, at least, from the look of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,' a prequel to a remake of a 1974 film that spawned numerous sequels and numberless copycats. There’s more to come, no doubt, given the bloodlust for torture and indifference to depravity characteristic of contemporary horror films. Every era gets the scare pictures it deserves, and there is nothing more unsettling in this orgy of hate than its overwhelming stench of corporate nihilism."
Nathan Lee in The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2006

This has been quite a year for Joss Whedon. Not only did he write and direct Marvel's The Avengers (#3 movie of all time as of this writing), he also wrote and produced The Cabin in the Woods. (Whedon shares screenwriting credit with Drew Goddard, who also directed.) In an age when we're lucky to get a pretty good reboot like Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, Cabin manages to work on multiple levels. It's the cleverest horror-comedy since Scream, as well as a lacerating critique of the genre a la Michael Haneke's Funny Games.

Haneke's controversial shock show depicted home intruders terrorizing a family. The director terrorized the audience with equal if not greater savagery. His punitive approach was spelled out in the film's tagline: "You must admit, you brought this on yourself." He wanted to punish viewers for expecting him to turn other people's suffering into an evening of entertainment. In contrast, Whedon wants us to have a good time, but that doesn't mean he lets us off the hook.

Conceived as a direct response to the "torture porn" subgenre popularized in the '00s, Cabin is the latest horror-comedy to offer a welcome respite from the depravity. The hilarious Tucker & Dale vs Evil took a familiar setup college kids are picked off one by one on hillbillies' home turf and delighted horror fans by having the rival clans switch roles. Cabin is an even savvier send-up. It supersedes Tucker & Dale by gleefully playing with genre conventions, and it arguably beats Haneke at his game, too.

This review is spoilers from here on out, though if you haven't seen the movie yet you might be surprised by how soon the filmmakers put their cards on the table. We meet five backwoods-bound college kids who could have stepped out of a thousand different horror movies. The masterstroke here is the totally original opening scene, which introduces us to a pair of corporate drones, Sitterson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, giving highly amusing performances), who look like they belong in a deadpan comedy like TV's The Office. Unlucky for the kids, Sitterson and Hadley have been assigned to carry out a ritualized slaughter, in order to appease gods that demand blood for peace.

Some of this plays as silly as it sounds, but it pays off big time. Cabin was a modest success when it came out last April, but it might have been even bigger had audiences known what was in store for them in the third act, when the movie becomes a crazy funhouse ride. All this nonsense about "the ancient ones" gives the film surprising scale, as we learn that similar sacrifices are taking place all over the world. J-horror fans will be tickled by a video feed from Kyoto that shows Japanese schoolchildren defeating an evil ghost whose face is hidden by a curtain of disheveled hair. ("Now Kiko's spirit will live in the happy frog.")

As we soon find out, this is no ordinary cabin in no ordinary woods. The place is booby-trapped, and a force field zaps anyone that dares escape. Sitterson and Hadley (referred to by the college kids as "puppeteers") release toxins in the air, causing the kids to behave like characters in some cliched horror movie. Curt (played by Chris Hemsworth, who has also had quite a year) is a sociology major on academic scholarship, but after a few hours in the woods he's acting like a bonehead. Jules (Anna Hutchison) becomes suddenly slutty. With some romantic lighting courtesy of the puppeteers, she takes off her top and goes all the way with Curt, thus sealing her fate. Hapless stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) is immune to the toxins because he's already on so much pot. His exasperation with his friends gives the movie some of its biggest laughs. Curt: "No, this is wrong. We should split up." Marty: "Really?"

Much like the scene where Jules makes the fatal mistake of taking off her top, other genre tropes come into play, as if they're being crossed off from a horror movie checklist. The gas station attendant the kids meet on their way to the cabin is a super-scary harbinger of doom, right up until the moment he's embarrassed by the puppeteers in a hilarious scene involving a speaker phone. The redneck family of pain fetishists that quote-unquote "virgin" Dana (Kristen Connolly) unwittingly brings back from the dead are straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most of these tropes are shown from a slightly bent comedic perspective, but that's not the case with the zombie rednecks. They represent a genuine threat, and play a key part in the film's most astonishing set piece, the wildest and most unforgettable scene I've watched at the movies all year.

Just when we think all the kids are goners, we cut to the puppeteers celebrating with their associates at an office party. We're shown what we'd expect to see at such a gathering, like people complaining about their overtime bonuses and a pretty lady rejecting the advances of a nerdy coworker. Only one thing seems out of place. In the background, on big TV screens, we can see Dana being brutally murdered by one of the zombies. No one at the party is paying attention to this, but we're forced to look as the girl pukes up blood and fights for her life. It's here that Whedon tops Haneke. As effective as much of Funny Games is, its arguments ultimately fall flat. Haneke hectors the audience to the point of backlash, and his sledgehammer methods, like having one of the killers deliver mocking asides to the camera, are self-defeating. He never achieves what the office party scene in Cabin does. Through Connolly's performance and Goddard's direction, we're made to identify with Dana's suffering, while at the same time we're shown how shocking it is for the partygoers to be ignoring her pain. The scene exposes the "indifference to depravity characteristic of contemporary horror films" that Nathan Lee wrote about in his review of a Texas Chainsaw prequel released in 2006. It also reestablishes the genre's moral footing.

At once cheerfully irreverent and deadly serious, Cabin is often just plain fun, recalling an earlier, more inventive time for horror movies. In his review for Indiewire, Ian Grey argued the film is a celebration of '80s horror and the dark icons that decade unleashed. I agree with his assessment. Whedon lets us know early on he's feeling that old '80s spirit, when Jules references a famous anti-drug PSA from 1987 ("I learned it by watching you!"). Later, at the office party, the puppeteers rock out to "Roll with the Changes" by REO Speedwagon. Cabin could be the start of an '80s horror revival; I just hope it doesn't take the form of another slate of mindless remakes.


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