By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — As Kurtz whispers at the end of Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror.”
Well, the horror, the horror, is what The Cabin in the Woods has on its mind. And there’s heart and there’s darkness, with things lurking in it. But no one’s whispering.
From the appearance of the title on, The Cabin in the Woods seems like a straightforward exercise in big-screen horror involving teens in peril that we’ve sat through many times before.
Then, as part of its slow reveal, it starts twisting and tweaking our expectations until we’re not sure just what forest we’re trapped in.
The Cabin in the Woods is a slasher film. Sort of. It’s about a cabin in the woods — sort of. And it’s about five college friends — played by Kristen Connolly, Chris Hensworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams — who go on a short vacation to a remote setting by a mountain lake.
Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are also sort of in the cast — and the wry, deadpan contributions of these savvy veterans are most welcome.
But even though we meet them early on, we’re not sure of just how they fit in. And if I told you in exactly what way they figured in the plot, it would just be an ill-advised excursion into spoiler territory.
Let’s just say that they’re not in the cabin or the woods, and that the less you know going in, the more you’ll enjoy this journey.
Debuting director Drew Goddard, who wrote the effective screenplay for Cloverfield, co-wrote this inventive and witty script with producer Josh Whedon.
For a movie that brings into play just about every familiar horror-movie convention ever deployed — even though many of them are subverted along the way — the film is surprisingly, even startlingly, original.
And worth appreciating is the way that Goddard and Whedon attempt to demonstrate that there’s another way to go in the horror genre than the depressing recent tendency towards what has come to be known as “torture porn.”
Perhaps you Saw several such motion pictures.
The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t exactly pull its punches, but it doesn’t traffic in graphic sadism either. It’s more interested in making us think about the elements of horror thrillers that compel us and why, a characteristic that the self-aware production has in common with the Scream flicks. And another characteristic the film shares with Scream: a sense of humor to go along with a sense of horror, as it simultaneously celebrates and incinerates the horror genre.
By the time The Cabin in the Woods wraps things up in the third act, it reveals itself to be a tad too clever for its own good — too much of a convoluted intellectual exercise, it turns out, however interesting in theory it is as it asks us to question why we respond to the genre and embrace the fear.
Unfortunately, this otherwise intriguing notion also both diminishes the ultimate scare quotient and undercuts our appreciation of the first two acts, which were full of dread and peppered with shock-scare jolts.
We wish the characters in danger had registered more forcefully so that we were more invested in the outcome. But there is still more than enough to admire and enjoy along the way for horror seekers to appreciate this fresh variation on a theme.
So we’ll horrify 2½ stars out of 4 for this thoughtful attempt to rescue the horror genre from its recent rut. The Cabin in the Woods does see the forest for the trees.