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Ten Word or Less Review: The Truman Horror Show

A jock, a hot chick, a pot head, a cute virgin and a minority character, or some variation of this lot, head out to the woods for a weekend getaway which is supposed to entail lots of alcohol and sexual debauchery.  Of course it never turns out that way.  Zombies attack, monsters awaken or flesh eating, inbred hillbillies terrorize the group.  One by one the teens get picked off in increasingly gruesome ways.  A machete always gets embedded in a skull.  It’s a rickety formula which got a funny kick in the pants not that long ago with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.  Now nerd God Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and first time director Drew Goddard take their shot at turning the cliches of this horror staple inside out.  Cabin in the Woods sets itself up as a radical poking of these tired and worn out wheels.  The two come awfully damn close to pulling off a miraculous horror show of sorts.  Characters are written and given actual definition, a scenario is spun which draws in the viewer, but in the end Cabin morphs into the very thing in tries so desperately not to be, a dumb movie.

You know a joke is a foot as soon as Cabin gets underway.  Instead of introducing the audience to our obligatory cavalcade of teen meat bags Cabin shows us two government workers (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) harping about their wives.  Where are the dumb kids and guys in hockey masks?  As this opening conversation culminates the title card slams the audience in the face.  CABIN IN THE WOODS!  Cleverness is about and the audience is intrigued.  Instead of  toying with the audience by traditional means, writers Whedon and Goddard just up and tell us, teens are being lured into an isolated cabin for some kind of nefarious government experiment.  Then it bothers to introduce us to the people who will inevitably meet the wrong end of sharp objects.  Dana (the cute virgin), Kurt (the jock), Jules (the hot chick), Marty (the pot head) and Holden (nerd/ethnic minority) seem like a decent enough group of young people.  Though a collection of cliches Goddard and Whedon make the screenplay work just enough to rise above the cliches they each represent.  They’re a likable collection of youth and their inevitable dispatching at the hands of zombie hillbillies is all the more fascinating as our government workers dispassionately observe, and even bet on, the mode of death which awaits them.  Goddard and Whendon may not toy with us as we’re accustomed to but they are toying with us.  Why is the government luring teens to a cabin to watch them die horrific deaths at the hands of flesh eating zombies?  What else is lurking out in the woods?  That’s the gimmick Cabin ably uses to build up a healthy head of steam for 2/3 of its story, and then quickly turn everything into a fiery train wreck.

It always feels unjust to slap around ambition.  Goddard and Whedon are not dummies and their attempt to open the box of the cabin bound slasher flick and rewire it with actual intelligence and intrigue makes for interesting viewing to a point.  But Goddard, a frequent collaborator with J.J. Abrahms, should have taken a more enigmatic approach as J.J. surely would’ve have done.  Abrams knows that narrative death can lie in explaining things.  He’s defined himself as a storyteller by emphasizing mystery and character and intentionally forsaking pat explanations.  Once the audience knows the game, the game is over.  Cabin in the Woods expends genuine effort to draw the viewer in and it works, and then the film comes crashing down its proverbial ankles as it insist on showing us all its nuts and bolts.  In and of itself that’s not a crime.  If Toto doesn’t pull that curtain back Dorothy doesn’t go home.  But the why’s and how’s of Cabin are so overreaching and dumb, by the time the credits role it has sadly become the very thing it so wanted to avoid, achingly moronic.

There are some parts of Cabin which deserve admiration and salute.  The cast is game and everyone sells it as best they can.  Goddard and Whedon will surely win points with certain movie goers for their semi-clever creation, but in the end all their ambition and ingenuity wind up serving a story no one needed.  Cabin carves out an interesting place for itself when it’s over.  It’s an almost fascinating, ambitiously mounted , nearly successful but aggravatingly stupid movie.

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