SXSW 2012 Review: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS Is A Beautifully Constructed Puzzle Box

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
The story of bringing this film to theatres is a long, turgid one. Shot way back in 2009, it's a story scripted by fanboy and girl fave Joss Whedon along with Buffy and Cloverfield scribe Drew Goddard. Financed by MGM, the film was caught up in the death of the storied studio - a situation also responsible for the delayed release of Red Dawn and the delayed continuation of the James Bond franchise.

Eventually attached to Lion's Gate, there was talk of doing post-conversion to 3D, a processed that was eventually shelved. Premiering at a hush-hush birthday screening last December in Austin, it's set to make its official debut back in the Texas Capital as part of this year's SXSW festival.

I'm writing all this preamble because, of course, it frees me from having to spoil a single thing about the story.

There are two kinds of people, those that read the backs of books or films before they watch them, and those that do not. Rightly or wrongly, I'm one of the latter. I love being surprised by a work, it's even better when I have no expectations. When I first saw this film, I had no bloody idea about any of the craziness surrounding its release. I didn't even know of Whedon's involvement - in fact, I'm not really a fan of his other stuff, and I avoided Cloverfield outright for fear it'd be a derivative, shaky cam mess. CITW from the opening credits was just a film that started up with some scenes in what looks like a lab, and then some kids getting ready for a trip to head of to a, er, Cabin...in the Woods.

Now, put your spoiler shield on and don't bother reading past this paragraph if you haven't seen the film. Trust me on one thing - if you're a true fan of genre pics open to seeing your expectations subverted, I think you'll adore this movie. It's clever, funny, supremely well executed, has great re-watchability (I've seen it twice so far), and is a hell of a lot of fun. It's a potent antidote to the drivel of imitative torture porn that the likes of Saw and Hostel wrought. Seen with an appropriate and knowledgeable audience, this could well be a kind of euphoric experience, a everyone-in-on-the joke celebration that's beyond the pale.

Now, continue reading only if you've seen the flick...

For me, what's a hell of a lot of fun is that the film absolutely nails the tone of being both an homage and a fantastic articulation of the very genres it usurps. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are easily the best actors to show up in one of these film in eons - maybe back to Nicholson in The Shining - and they absolutely nail their roles. The group themselves also do a wonderful job playing both sides of the card, with Fran Kranz in particular taking the stoner-idiot trope to its most logical conclusion.

The ending of the film, in all its phantasmagoric beauty and gristle, is deliciously cathartic (as you know, cuz, well, you've seen it already, right?). That surprise appearance by a certain actor? Sure, it could have come off as gratuitous, but the inclusion of some genre film royalty into the proceedings was done, I thought, with a surprising amount of grace, and they prove they can still chew up some dialogue on screen without CGI augmentation.

Finally, there's the morality of the ending, which is just...terrifically morbid. Nihilistic mid-50s French philosophy morbid, a "no Goddamn way are we leaving room for a sequel" morbid. It's just so refreshing to see a film, even one where much of the time it's playing with cliché, just go for it, dropping any sense of a happy, unselfish ending. The ending plays by the same set of rules as the rest of the film, and for those that have been playing along it's really the only way that story earned as a conclusion.

There are some that may dismiss the whole thing as a fluffy little pastiche like Scream or a Zucker Brothers film, but I think the story's far too intricate and engaging for it to deserve such scorn. The film is shot in a beautifully effective way, its script and scope of the production mesh beautifully, the ensemble cast perform with nary a slip up - in short, it's an impeccably executed film deserving of great praise and success.

And yet, CITW is a film that's somewhat fragile. I think a tremendous amount of its charm rests on you truly being surprised by the outcome. Having seen the trailer after my first screening, I was amused how they made it seem like the very film that it's not, some sort of Lost-meets-Cabin Fever. I think it's more than that - for one, the script is a beautifully constructed puzzle box, yet with a clear and articulate narrative that's not obtuse for obfuscation sake. With this work in particular, Whedon and Goddard have managed to both entertain those that watch these types of films (you know, the ones that tend to read reviews at TWITCH), and do a wonderful, articulate deconstruction of the banal underpinnings of almost all works of this ilk. Sure, CITW is a winking, post-modern take on this style of film, but it's refuses cheap laughs and resolutely sticks with the rules of the world it creates.

Quirky, intelligent, at times sexy and thrilling, it will either completely enthrall you or piss you off with its precociousness. For me, especially the first time with a rabid and educated audience, I found the film to be just a pleasure to watch. My second time through was at a sparsely attended press screening, always a huge test for any genre film, especially one that relies on this number of twists. On second viewing the work was perhaps not quite as engaging, but it still held up remarkably well, the jokes and innuendo at times even more amusing, Jenkins and Whitford's characters even more recognizably the heart of the film (Mermen aside...)

If you are able to go in as free from preconception as possible, giving into its many charms, I think you'll find that your visit to the genre-bending The Cabin In The Woods will prove to be one of the most unabashedly enjoyable trips in years. I hope you enjoy the ride.

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