Cabin fever contagion
It’s hugely entertaining but this horror homage gets out of control, writes Donald Clarke
16 cert, gen release, SO WE’RE BACK here again. Are we? In 1996 Wes Craven’s Scream unleashed self-conscious hell on unsuspecting horror fans. It took the industry some time to recover from the shock of being showered in its own innards. But the rise of Asian horror eventually pushed film-makers towards a school of ghostly surrealism. Then the pseudo-genre that was torture porn bludgeoned its way into the basement.
In truth, the meta-pulp that followed Scream rapidly became more cliched than the material it sought to deconstruct. Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein had
more to say about horror conventions than did I Know What You Did Last Summer. Good riddance.
Still, if we must return to this particular trough we may as well do so in the company of Joss Whedon. The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer knows a thing or two about placing inverted commas round his characters without rendering the action too indigestibly arch.
Working with Buffy collaborator Drew Goddard, the producer and writer pulls it off again in Cabin in the Woods. The film is more fun than watching a snake swallow its own tail.
Making life easy for reviewers, Goddard and Whedon take the unusual step of revealing the “twist” before the core plot is properly up and running. The Cabin in the Woods follows a group of nubile young people as they attempt to repel representatives of the undead while holidaying in a remote cottage. The archetypes are all in place. Holden (Jesse Williams) is a responsible honours student. Jules (Anna Hutchison) enjoys booze and boys. Curt (Chris Helmsworth) is exactly the sort of jock deity you’d expect to see portrayed by Marvel’s Thor. Dana (Kristen Connolly) comes close to being a virgin.
You know how these things go. More to the point, you know how meta-deconstructions of these things go. The mobile phones lose reception. A scary maniac at a deserted gas station scowls through broken teeth. Why it’s almost as if some malevolent entity is manipulating the action.
A pre-credit sequence does, indeed, reveal that representatives of some sinister, possibly quasi-governmental body are closely observing the characters. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford raise hearty laughs as two senior scientists from the mysterious project. The boffins have constructed an environment modelled on classic horror films. Operating from a vast lair beneath the cabin, the puppet-masters cynically nudge the cast towards their doom. Will somebody blow the conch and unleash the mermen? No. Instead, they read out the ancient text that causes the zombie family to rise from their graves. Aphrodisiac gases are released to stimulate the type of activity that traditionally precedes carnage in such situations.
The film-makers have about as much affection for their characters as do the men in the white coats. Perhaps that’s the point. The evil geniuses in the underground control room are, like Mr Whedon and Mr Goddard, only interested in the unfortunate drones’ statuses as archetypal sacrifices.
The movie’s callousness is, however, one of the keys to its appeal. When set beside the savage rituals in The Cabin in the Woods, The Hunger Games comes across like The Generation Game. There is an impressively sour tone to the humour throughout.
Nonetheless, for all its energy and satirical verve, The Cabin in the Woods can’t quite contain the hugeness of its apocalyptic ambition. An astonishingly predictable celebrity cameo – listen for a familiar voice – falls flat as the directors abandon caution and unleash astronomical levels of catastrophe. It looks as if the film has an ambition to do for horror cinema what the Book of Revelations did for Christianity. Internal logic breaks down. Hysteria takes over. A zesty bubble of pulp evolves into something altogether more unhinged.
The Cabin the Woods remains hugely entertaining stuff. But you might want a little lie down afterwards.
Archetypical anxiety: The cast of The Cabin in the Woods