Theatrical Review: The Cabin in the Woods

I’m running a little behind on this one, I’d originally intended to post it last weekend, but unfortunately, personal circumstances came ahead of it. But still, better late than never…

As The Cabin in the Woods starts, were introduced to two technicians, Sitterson and Hadley, as they’re beginning to start their day. By their conversation, it all sounds like it’s going to be rather mundane, but as the title of the movie comes up, you certainly get the idea that there’s something way more to this than it seems. We immediately flash to a group of five college students who decide that they’re going to get away from it all for the weekend, literally heading to the titular cabin in the woods. but as they leave, we soon find out that they’ve been under some major surveillance and that aspects of their trip and preparations for it have been totally manipulated. As they get to the cabin, they realize that they’re getting way more than what they bargained for and both of the scenarios that we’ve been presented with are about to collide in a way that neither have expected.

Sorry if all of that sounds rather cryptic, but saying much more would lead into some major spoilers for this film, and I just don’t want to give too much away at the start of this review. The Cabin in the Woods comes to us from director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon who also collaborated on the story together. These guys certainly have geek street cred, having worked together on the Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and having separate credits like Goddard having been a writer on Lost and Alias as well as writing the movie Cloverfield and of course, Whedon also being responsible for such things as Firefly and Dollhouse as well as next week’s highly anticipated Avengers film. Lionsgate has been sitting on releasing this one for awhile, though I have to admit after seeing the trailer and knowing the pedigree here, I was certainly looking forward to it. Unfortunately, immediately after seeing it, I really wasn’t that thrilled by it, in fact, I just didn’t like it. Having had a week further to stew on this (and also having a chance to read an extensive interview with Goddard), I appreciate it more now than I did immediately after seeing it, but I still don’t think it’s that successful in getting it’s points across.

The Cabin in the Woods is some pretty ambitious meta-commentary from both Goddard and Whedon, not only on what they see as the state of horror films but also about the ideas of sending the young off to do the bidding of the old. It’s pretty apparent from the start that there’s some sort of master manipulation going on here. But, thanks to the rather snarky treatment that all of the characters and the situations get, it was hard for me to give a damn about either side and so the point for me was to see what exactly the punchline was at the end. And when it does get to the end, it does all get resolved, but to a point where there’s really no “pro” side to what they’re commenting on. Basically, if you look at the implications of it’s final moments, it’s not really saying much for the side of the young, at least from my point of view.

In the interview that I read with Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods was described as a love/hate letter to horror films. While I get Goddard’s points, they just didn’t come across to me in what I was being presented. To me, it’s points about horror films and it’s characters were more on the mocking and contemptuous side more than anything else with their “love” side being more confined to the film’s end and then still just not balanced enough.

And then there’s the characters… Each of the five college students are essentially playing two roles; pre- and post-manipulation. But the pre- side gets quite a bit short-changed, so much so that basically they all just blend together. Kristen Connolly plays the red-headed lead amongst the college kids, Dana, and she’s a bit on the dry side here, having me think that she was cast only because Felicia Day (a perennial Whedon favorite) just wasn’t available (and having said that, I think Day could’ve brought quite a bit more here). Fran Kranz (who played Topher in Whedon’s Dollhouse) plays everyone’s stoner friend Marty and is just too cartoonish to me, so much so that I had a hard time buying that the other kids would even be hanging out with him. It’s also worth noting that Chris Hemsworth is one of the college students having made this film before he ever played Marvel’s Thor character.

Faring better are the characters of Sitterson and Hadley played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford respectively. There’s certainly plenty of snark shown with these guys as well, but they have their moments where they do display the gravity of the situation that’s about to unfold and that certainly goes a long way. Giving them support, you have another perennial Whedon favorite, Amy Acker as a fellow tech and Brian White who plays security for this group. White stands out for me as he’s all-business in his part, and amongst the cast is the one who totally shows the importance of what’s about to go down. It’s also worthy of note that you do have a big-name actress (who’s a bit of a horror icon her own self) who comes in for a very important cameo.

There’s massive elements of The Cabin in the Woods that are very similar to parts of both the Angel and Dollhouse TV shows (specifically the Wolfram and Hart firm on Angel). The advantage that those shows have though, is that they had time to develop and here, it’s just shown as sketches more than anything else. I tend to think if we’d had just a little more time with the college students at the start and some more time with the organization behind this master plot, this could’ve been a lot more satisfying to me. As it stands, The Cabin in the Woods seems to me to be more concerned with it’s contemptuous lampooning more than anything else. I’m not adverse to this stuff getting fun poked at it all, but here it just went overboard and maybe some more serious development time would’ve helped to balance this better.

Again, I certainly appreciate The Cabin in the Woods more now than I did immediately after seeing it and I certainly admire the massive ambition that’s here. Compared to a lot of reviews I’ve been seeing, I’m in the minority on this one. I think it’s unsuccessful, but… I’m not going to discourage anyone from seeing this, and more, if you haven’t seen it yet and are of a mind to see it, I’d encourage you to do so. It may not have been successful to me, but there’s still some good ideas here and they very well might work for you.


Theatrical Review: The Raven

The time is 1849 and the place is Baltimore, it’s the final days in the life of famed writer Edgar Allen Poe and during this time a mysterious killer is using methods from Poe’s own stories to commit his crimes.  Poe is enlisted to help solve the crimes by a smart young detective, Emmet Fields.  The stakes soon become even more personal to Poe when his fiancee, Emily Hamilton is kidnapped by the killer and used as bait for Poe to chronicle what he has seen.

This is the premise to The Raven the newest movie from director James McTeigue and starring John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe.  Previously, McTeigue has been an assistant director working with the Wachowski Brothers on The Matrix films and more recently he’s been directing on his own with such films as V For Vendetta and Ninja Assassin, both of which I enjoyed a great deal.  Combined with the inspired casting of Cusack as Poe, I was looking forward to seeing this and I had a great time with it.

The Raven certainly salutes a good portion of Poe’s most memorable works like Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Pit and The Pendulum but at it’s core, this is a mystery/detective thriller and that itself, at least to me, is also a salute as many consider Poe to be the father of the modern detective story.  Writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare have certainly done their homework and have crafted something here that’s a pretty nice extrapolation of what could’ve led up to the mysterious circumstances to Poe’s own death.

The visual style of the film is first rate and most will likely compare it to more recent films like Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or more recently, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films.  For me, I think McTeigue has gone back a little further and the look  reminds me more of a combination of Roger Corman’s classic Poe adaptations and  the horror films of the Hammer and Amicus studios.  It’s very appealing and doesn’t have overt flash, but certainly the right detail (with the one notable exception being that Cusack is sporting a beard that the real Poe didn’t have- this will no doubt bother some, but I was OK with it).

And speaking of Cusack, I just thought he did a fantastic job here.  To me, it was obvious that he threw himself into his research and it shows on-screen.  Poe’s not made to be some sort of super-hero in this film, he’s basically the picture of desperation at this point in his life and it certainly adds to how he helps solve the mystery.  Luke Evans plays Detective Emmet Fields.  Evans has most recently been seen in movies like The Three Musketeers and Immortals (and will soon be seen in the new Hobbit films).  Evans does a terrific job here and though his role isn’t quite as flashy as Cusack, he still does a great job of keeping up with him and the two have very nice chemistry together.

Alice Eve plays Emily Hamilton more closer to a contemporary heroine, though it doesn’t feel out of place here at all.  Brendon Gleeson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Sam Hazeldine all fill out the rest of the main cast and do a nice job on the support, though I do want to call out Hazeldine a bit here.  I can’t really say why as I don’t want to spoil things, but I do really appreciate what he did in the film.

Now, The Raven isn’t perfect.  There’s a few plot holes here and there that fortunately don’t really bother me that much thanks to the film’s even pace and strong performances.  Also, it’s main credits sequence is totally out of place- it looks like something that would be used in a contemporary David Fincher film- but fortunately, they’ve kept this sequence to run at the end of the film.  If it had been set at the beginning, it would’ve stood out more on the negative side.  Still, I was plenty entertained by The Raven, primarily due to the performances of both Cusack and Evans, the good uses of Poe’s works in the murders and James McTeigue’s thoughtful visual style.  It’s a fun and cool diversion and certainly worth seeing if you have the chance.