‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2012) review: Clichés are so clichéd

‘Cabin in the Woods’ takes a chainsaw to horror genre

Editor’s note: This review first was published April 13, 2012.

“The Cabin in the Woods” is utterly fascinating. It’s also completely infuriating.

You see, “Cabin” shoots for this lofty “Scream”-like pseudo-intellectualism: It seeks to takes the classic horror genre and spin it completely on its head. You get the traditional college group — a jock, a scholar, a stoner, a blonde and a virgin — that decides to spend the weekend in a cabin in a beautifully wooded, if knowingly desolate, forest. But before they even get there, they’re warned by a foul-mouthed, strange-eyed man. And when they finally get to the rustic cabin, they discover not all is what it seems. That, and one nightmarishly hellish basement full of some seriously creepy remnants.

You think you’ve seen this movie before, and for the most part you have. But that’s kind of the point. The filmmakers — Drew Goddard, the director, and Joss Whedon, a producer — obviously spent a copious amount of time trying to pull off a feeling of abandon and originality. They want to create a movie you think you know, and then throw in so many clever twists and surprises you’re left watching something completely new.

And there’s cleverness abound. You can’t blink without seeing something clever. But therein lies “Cabin’s” major flaw: This isn’t a clever type of clever. This is in-your-face, I’m-Joss-Whedon clever. You instantly see it for what it is. For all the effort the film’s team put in, it’s that intellectualism that does it in.

That isn’t to say “Cabin” was a failure. In fact, it’s completely riveting. The two parallel tracks it starts off with are ingenious. On one track, you have our libido-driven college kids doing what college kids do. On the other, we have two official-looking types (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) working away in a NASA-like ground control room. It doesn’t take too long before you realize there’s more of a connection between the two than you may first think, but telling any more would spoil the surprise.

As a slasher-zombie flick, everything at first seems to fall into the place, starting with well-established stereotypes. Those, however, soon are upended. The dumb jock (Chris Hemsworth) and his beach-blonde girlfriend (Anna Hutchison) aren’t as dumb as you may think. The perpetually paranoid stoner (a great Fran Kranz) is more perceptive than his pot-induced ramblings would suggest. And the two goody two-shoes (Kristen Connolly and Jesse Williams), the pair you expect to survive all the trauma, are far more interesting than normal.

The two seemingly separate plots converge not long after the group reaches its disastrous destination. The men in white provide the comic relief while giving us helpful clues as to what in the world is happening at the cabin. It’s actually a bit dark, especially as you learn more of the plot’s mechanics. Amy Acker and Brian White join the pair in exploring the plot’s finer details.

A plus for the film is the divergence from the “found footage” scenario now in vogue. Instead, “Cabin” is a mash-up between Wes Craven’s “Scream” and Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead.” Actually, there’s a lot of “Evil Dead” in “Cabin,” but it’s a good thing. And while it’s similar to “Scream,” it doesn’t ever quite reach the same connectable level. “Scream” was fantastic at proving that knowing how a horror movie plays out doesn’t equate to surviving in one. It proved it was possible to be funny (well, spoofy) and scary at the same time.

“Cabin” never quite gets there, but not for a lack of trying. Instead, it’s because of how hard it does try. The overwhelming sensibility, the overt cleverness takes its toll.

It’s a shame, really, because once you seen how far this movie strays from the genre, you’re going to be impressed. Maybe just a bit pissed off, but still impressed.

Four horrific stars out of five.

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