Cabin in the Woods is a film by director Drew Goddard and cowritten by Goddard and Joss Whedon - Whedon is famous for writing the entry that ruined the Alien franchise for over a decade until Ridley Scott came to take science fiction back from the retards, and Goddard is the guy who wrote all that dialog in Cloverfield you fast forward through to get to TJ Miller losing his shit. This movie is being hailed up and down by everyone as an innovation in horror films, as a brilliant meta-narrative, a rejection of the modern "torture porn" era of horror, and as a return to a more character-driven take on the genre.
All of that is ridiculous bullshit. While the script and direction are smart, they're actually too smart and too clever to actually be at all effective or entertaining.
If you've ever gotten sick of a movie because you can see the strings, all the plot tricks, all the stupid things you go with to get to the scene where the naked girl gets her hed chopped off, this is a movie that spends nearly the first two thirds of it's runtime pointing out those things. Goddard and Whedon even take a shot at Scream in the opening scene of the film, but the only difference between this and Scream is that Wes Craven was one of the guys who created those rules and expectations and was totally okay with exploding those conventions. Goddard and Whedon, they don't come off as someone deconstructing their own mythology (even though Scream isn't really all that great a movie, it's very much a part of Wes Craven), it feels like two guys in a screenwriting course sick of learning Joseph Campbell and figuring out a way to make their horror assignment interesting to them. It's inside baseball, and it's biggest problem is that anyone who can get the references that start flying really fast and loose is going to be someone who also gets really sick of being told that what they're really invested in is nothing but a series of checks to be hit by bored technicians (ie screenwriters), and it doesn't matter if they're watching films as diverse as Hooper/Spielberg's barnburning classic Poltergeist or Larry Fessenden's micro-personal Wendigo, both of which are directly referenced in the film, it's the same structure and fuck you, all we can see is structure and we're sick of it. The end of the movie literally has two of the ciphers that lead this thing say it's time to end it, meaning the structure that Goddard and Whedon have played - even when deconstructing it. I just don't think that exposing a structure and not doing anything with it is entertaining on it's own, especially when there's so much beyond Scream that has done this and then gone somewhere with it, elegantly and beautifully. From Death Proof to Night of the Living Creeps to that halloween Community episode, it's not like we're hurting for humanisitic deconstructions of the horror genre.
But yeah, the monsters that show up first are meant to highlight all the horrible things about modern horror - dubbed "Zombie Redneck Torture Family", they're the things that you've seen in theaters throughout the past phase of horror movies which have mostly been awful (as, lets admit horror always is mostly horrible, that's why the good ones are so good). But torture porn has been dying out, as Saw and Hostel are not really speaking to people anymore (and weren't that far away from what Cabin is doing, albeit not as smart, but Hostel is built on Miike and Wicker Man and Saw features more Argento/Fulci shoutouts than you'd expect for a stupid puzzle movie starring Cary Elwes) and the only torture porn that's really coming out these days is stuff like Martyrs from France (which is, like Cabin in the Woods, a deconstruction about the sacrifice and dehumanization of women in the name of art, only y'know, not as vapid as this thing).
The thing is, this isn't a return to classic horror so much as it is a love letter to post-80s horror - it has the slasher structure but all the monsters in the film are explicitly from Hellraiser, Reanimator, the Evil Dead films, Pumpkinhead, The Strangers, Nightbreed, The Hills Have Eyes, It, The Howling, Dreamscape (thx to Jeff Lester for pointing that out), the Manitou, and vauge-er "Zombies, Mermen, Aliens, Vampires". In interviews Whedon and Goddard liked to say John Carpenter is their standard for horror, which is what got me to go see this thing. I think invoking the name Carpenter automatically means that you have a certain level of respect for the material and the audience, neither of which is evident here. Carpenter is my favorite director, biases upfront, so I hold that name pretty highly.
Instead the film attempts for a weird hybrid of Sam Raimi and Clive Barker, two directors who are vastly influential and impossible to copy because no one has Raimi's timing or comedic sense and no one in horror has managed to turn Lovecraft and gothic romance into personal sexual exorcism the way Barker has. So when the sequence in the film plays liberally with a scene from Nightbreed, albeit saying "old ones" instead of "Baphomet" (and it's not a Cthulu reference because it's clearly Baphomet in the last shot, so don't correct me on this shit) , it comes off as hamfisted and weird, rather than a logical conclusion to the film.
The characters here have been championed as real characters forced to play into the slasher archetypes, but in reality, you don't spend nearly enough time with any of them to actually care about them, and the one you as a viewer are supposed to identify with (the stoner, because fuck you, audience; and the half-assed iteration of the Final Girl/Virgin) are annoying and empty characters. All of them, you want to see all of them murdered violently. Because that's what you go to a horror movie for, to see people get murdered. Usually women, or at least sexually active couples, and while there is a touch on the misogyny of this kind of material with one of the girls (who gets called "the whore" more than she gets called whatever they named her), but it's more of them hanging a lantern on their bullshit than discussing anything, which is worse than just indulging it.
The money shot in the film, where the two plucky survivors unleash all the monsters at once, is great. But it feels like it's 80% of the way there as a scene, it feels like they wanted to take it even further and couldn't and settled on what they could afford. The way the scene plays out, you feel like Goddard and Whedon felt they were saying something, pitting the supernatural old guard against the current era of military and military-influenced (read: torture) imagery. But it plays out that they'd really just like to see all the monsters at once attacking a bunch of people (hey look they killed the only black guy in the movie just to hit the cliche, oh wait that's exactly what they're telling people not to do but they'll do it anyway , because who cares you've just got to kill the black guy! Garbage). The big reveal cameo at the end of the film has the stunt casting of Sigourney Weaver making a speech to a character named Dana about how all slashers are a ritual sacrifice to the old gods, her being the "ultimate final girl". Except the speech is clearly not written for her, it's written for Jamie Lee Curtis (star of 4 Halloween films, Prom Night, The Fog, Terror Train, Roadgames, Virus - the definitive scream queen of the slasher era), who definitely said no, and they got Ripley, who the narrative doesn't quite work with because Alien had her as the Final Girl but the narrative doesn't quite fit, and the speech doesn't quite ring true because it's not Laurie Strode it's Sigourney Weaver. Any cache they're treading on rings false, because she's as much the James Cameron Ripley as the Ridley Scott one, and calling out Dana Barret feels like a half-measure or a last minute fix. It's like that with every reference and knowing twist and clever punch on the material in the film, it's all cerebral in a way horror can't be to be successfully visceral. It's a horror film for people who WRITE horror films, and when you hold it against other movies you could describe that way, it's not even a good example.
Whats the good thing you can say about Cabin in the Woods? Richard Jenkins is amazing as always, and screams fuck you at some schoolgirls at one point . Other than that, fuck this movie and fuck the people who like it.
- George Romero's anti-Vampire movie, also the first entry in his lifelong collaboration with makeup/effects genius Tom Savini. This is a character piece, which is really about poverty and religion and fear of sex. Romero is well known for what are essentially seige movies, zombie-specific, but he's really one of the last humanists working in genre cinema - a guy who is perpetually trying to have some hope for humanity even though he instinctually heads towards the downer ending each time. Martin is likely made on a fraction of the budget of nearly all of these "low budget" slashers, and through Romero's years training in public television and sheer talent, he makes it look great even though it is a movie that's almost entirely shot in two neighborhood houses with the crew doing double duty as cast members. The structure, where Martin is acting out his sexual and familial anxieties as if he were a vampire, and venting his experiences to an all-night call-in show, is decades before it's time, and a device of convienience, but it livens up what could have been nothing more than an exercise of flipping tropes. Worth looking out for.
03. I Spit On Your Grave
- the definitive rape/revenge movie of the 70s, in which a sexually liberated woman from the city raped and humiliated by rednecks only to emasculate, castrate, and murder the fuck out of them in the second half of the thing. It has a lot of similarities to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE but is nowhere near successful - but it's there, the way that silence and setting seems to overtake the parts that aren't the money shots of fucked up shit. It's an economic decision rather than an artistic one, but in a lot of these zero budget slashers it lends them a patience and stillness that you normally find in films by foreign masters, and in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE it turns a crass, ugly exploitation film (in the most literal definition of the term) into something almost austere in moments. TEXAS CHAINSAW is a fucking David Gordon Green film in comparison to this piece of crap, but watch a ton of these things and see how few of them work this way.
04. Alice Sweet Alice
- weird, shitty, ugly movie that lives and dies on it's opening sequence, which isn't very good to begin with. Brooke Shields starred in this movie about childhood resentment and murder for a good 3 minutes, and then years later went on to write a book about how she hated her baby because of postpartum depression, which will one day cause her daughter to resent her and do some crazy rich person shit. There's no relation between the two, I just find that second thing really really REALLY funny.
05. Violence At High Noon
- Nagima Oshima serial killer/rapist movie from the 60s, which is interesting because it's edited like a Crank movie, nervous rhythm anxiously wiring you as a viewer to not know whats happening moment-to-moment. That being said, after the initial novelty wears off, the story itself is kind of just a crappy version of SWORD OF DOOM with more rape and less crushing Toshiro Mifune monologues.
06. The Hills Have Eyes
- Wes Craven's first phase as a director was about warring families, and about the the insane intruding into normality, in this one normality fucks up and crosses into the nuclear wasteland of cannibal mutants, ones so famous they later reappeared in a couple sequels and Weird Science. This movie is kind of an inversion of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and Craven's a better technical director by this point, but the weirdness of cannibal mutants has kind of been too absorbed by the culture for this to have the teeth it did in 1977.
07. Trick R Treat
- Shockingly solid anthology movie, even though it's built entirely out of cliches, saved by some great direction and great performances. It's a lot like Creepshow, only taking itself slightly more seriously. Bryan Cox and Dylan Baker show up to play, the kids aren't nearly as annoying as they could have been, and it's shot really well. The effects fail (practical and cg) it near the final segments, along with a too-on-the-nose Evil Dead 2 callback, but this is entertaining.
08. A Nightmare on Elm Street
- Holds up far better than I remembered it, Wes Craven gets sick of the slasher-cutting-up-teens and rewrites it to be more supernatural and more interesting. 3/4 of the movie is a brilliant subversion of the formula, with two or three really great sequences - the scene in the bathtub is iconic, Heather Lagenkamp screaming in her sleep in the classroom, the intercutting of the dream and real life when Freddy kills the blonde. But the whole thing is ruined by the 15 minutes which is stupid and insulting, as it turns into Home Alone, and then Craven intentionally ruins the movie just so they couldn't crap out a sequel (which they did anyway).
09. Alone in the Dark
- This movie is why you go back through the lists of slasher movies, because sometimes you find a gem like this, which is kind of like a serial killer version of the 80s Keaton/ comedy Dream Team mixed in with Straw Dogs. Jack Palance, Martin Landua, a fat child molester and a crazy guy in a ski mask called "The Bleeder" break out of a mental ward (run by a hippy-dippy Donald Pleasance) to kill their psychiatrist, which has Murdock from the A-Team in the Gregory Peck/Nick Nolte/Dustin Hoffman role. Real acting turns what would be a fun trifle into a blast, and the payoff for not seeing the Bleeder's face is one of the rare "OH NO OH SHIT OH FUCK" moments I got while watching so many of these. This is a classic I'd never heard of, so I decided I would watch Jack Sholder's next movie, Freddy's Revenge, how bad could it be ...
10. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge
- Horrible, quick cash in sequel, which has absolutely nothing to do with the first movie and has since been removed from Freddy Kruger continuity. Freddy's Revenge is only interesting when you look at it as a movie about homosexual subtext, and even then, like Cruising, it pretty much says that being gay will turn you from a normal straight person into a sadistic serial killer. Which is true, but still seems mean that we straight people have to put it in our movies over and over again. I mean, at least Top Gun had some cool planes.
11. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
- This is more like it, Frank Darabont and Wes Craven both worked on the script for this, and it really shows as the movie actually has characters worth caring about. This is the first and only slasher directed by Chuck Russell, who went on do produce Michael Mann's Collateral, and it's a weird, inventively directed movie. Basically, the united colors of Benneton/the New Mutants/whatever multicultural group of teens you want to name - goth girl, angry black kid, angry white kid, wannabe actress, half-naked Patricia Arquette - fight Freddy Kruger using their communal dream powers. It is dumb, and I love it.
- This is the movie the old guy in Christine, the one who talks about pussy, this is where he comes from. This movie has not much going for it, it's the Ed Gein story, which is much better interpreted in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho, and the only thing it really has going for it is the first movie a young Tom Savini did the effects for. The strangest thing is that the format is set up in where the narrator is a reporter wandering around the scenes of the murders, which is about two seconds away from a Monty Python skit at all times.
- Another bizarre early Tom Savini entry, directed by Bob Clark, which plays into the vampire-as-metaphor-for-heroin-addiction metaphor in a really interesting way, by taking drugs out of the thing completely and making it a coming home from Vietnam story with no vampire trappings at all. Not a good movie, but weird, small, and interesting, like a good Night Gallery episode. The thing is if you watch a ton of these kinds of movies you start to realize the pacing of the things is entirely about eating up time so they do a lot more character work or have, long extended quiet sections inbetween the "good" parts/the violent parts
- You know it, you've seen it, you love it. Severed head giving head, Jeffry Combs doing his thing, animatronic cat, horrendous bloodbaths, janky score, surprisingly gripping final scene. More fun than good, not really good at all, but that last scene has serious teeth.
- Fred Dekker's explosion of horror tropes, playfully dicking around with 50s makeout horror, zombies, aliens, slugs, rogue cops, and crappy 80s college movies cliches until it becomes something fresh and alive again. All the characters here are named after horror directors, including a janitor named after Friday the 13th pt 2 director and 2nd Unit director Steve Miner, and Cameron, Carpenter, and Cronenberg all get namechecked. A lot funnier and smarter than anything else from it's era, and something that lays the groundwork for not just the meta-horror era that came in with Scream but the one that came after that.
- An absolute classic, one I've recently (last year) turned back onto by Tucker, and have since watched like 10 times. This is just a great movie, with a great cast, a smart, no-bullshit script, great effects and great direction, scary as hell in a way almost none of the other movies i'm watching here are. No point in picking out best parts or examining it really, the thing about truly good movies is that they stand up to vivisection and analysis, but they don't need it. Event Horizon is perfect on its own.
- Banned in the UK for it's subject matter - a psychopathic sexual sadist pretends to be retarded in order to kill people and sleep with Hayley Mills. Today this movie is probably more famous for it's theme tune, and that it's a favorite of Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright. In reality, the only thing interesting about this movie aside from the whistle is that they had the balls to make a movie with the premise in the first place. Also, Billie Whitelaw manages to be sexier than the sex symbol of the movie without really trying. I just wish there was some kind of payoff to this thing beyond the original idea.
- Brian De Palma's earliest masterpiece, turning Hitchcock into a genre, has insane stylistic heights - the opening is a parody gameshow named after the film that blackballed Michael Powell, and the evil mad doctor is named after a surrealist writer (William Finley, in his finest hour, RIP), another one named after the writer of Apocalypse Now. The plot is a mishmash of Rear Window, Psycho, Notorious, Vertigo, and Spellbound; only with added splitscreen fireworks, race-baiting, lesbian reporters, bodily mutilation, garbage psychology, and an insane 1920s funhouse horror sequence added in for flavor. Margot Kidder playstwo roles and chopping a black man's dick off. It's gorgeous, funny, weird, and audacious as it gets. I love this movie unabashedly. The fact that it doesn't even begin to tread on the fucked-up toes of De Palma's other movies should be a point of pride.
19. Silent Rage
- The one where Chuck Norris fights sort-of Michael Meyers. William Finley and Ron Silver in the same scene, sweet mother of fuck. Movie is not too good though. It does have this great scene of Ron Silver giving his wife shit about her cooking, which is where movies like this tend to sneak up on you. Still not great, you could probably find the big fight at the end on youtube and skip the rest of it.
20. Just Before Dawn
- Kind of the lodestone for the backwoods slasher - the demarcation point between Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and Texas Chainsaw and what would come afterwards. This has the slasher plot, the final girl, the long languid places in between the kills. The soundtrack is post-Carpenter synths, and you probably know it best as the intro to Red Rider's "Lunatic Fringe". The ending, the fat, whistling inbred killer gets his tongue ripped out by a teenage girl. Which is kinda neat.
21. The Stepfather
- Written and produced by Parker creator Donald Westlake, starring the guy who would later play Locke on Lost (also - Howard Hughes in the Rocketeer, which is way more awesome). Total crapfest, but it has one good freakout scenery-chewing by O'Quinn.
22. Don't Go In The House
- Pyscho ripoff where the guy sets naked ladies on fire. Like Deranged, it has a bunch of Ed Gein shit, but instead of a weird narrative device it has nudity. Also the guy actually says "Time to pay the price" as a big dramatic moment.
23. Thriller: A Cruel Picture/ They Call Her One Eye
- (and yeah the fucked up swedish version not the halfassed US-distributed cut). This movie is probably most famous for being a) showing a cumshot on a woman's asshole in a narrative feature in 1974, and b) being used wholesale as the basis for Daryl Hanna's character in the Kill Bill films. This is a much better standard for rape/revenge movies than (almost made a "seminal" pun here) the gigantic piece of shit, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, because it at least a little bit of nuance in the fillmmaking (there is an extended training montage intercut with heroin use and hardcore sex) and an impulse by the filmmakers to push the extreme qualities in all kinds of ways beyond the kills and the sex acts. After Shame, Irreversible, and Dogme95 this seems a lot less like an exploitation movie (though it still screams it) and more like a really committed euro-action movie. It does suffer from the dead silence of a lot exploitation pictures, which were paced to have the action punctuate long stretches of nothing because that's all they could afford, hopefully you'll forget when you see the end kill or the end chase. Here it's all about how the final moment plays out on Christina Lindberg's face. The cool thing about the rape/revenge end of slashers is that narratively they reverse the transition of audience identification. In the good slasher movies, because they all rip off Black Christmas and Halloween, you as a viewer start out seeing through the killers eyes and by the end you're on the side of the victim, going after the killer. Slashing the slasher. In rape/revenge movies, you identify with the same character all the way through but they go from victim to becoming the killer. Thriller is rough, but it's actually a pretty good movie
- This is a movie that has a major character named "T.P.", which is... even in 1982 that is fucking ridiculous. He even has a gigantic 70's belt buckle that reads "TP". And then he goes missing and his friends run around the woods screaming "TEE PEE! TEE PEE!" What the fuck is that? How the fuck do you get through the months-long process of making a movie involving dozens of people and still end up with a character named "T.P."? At no point does anyone go "Hey maybe that's not a great name for a character? Maybe people are gonna laugh at that? Maybe this movie isn't nearly good enough to support any laughter at all?" Other than that, this has Dawn of the Dead star and future Swedish Nazi Gold documentarian Gaylen Ross under a a fake name "Alexis Dubin", it's unoriginal and stupid, the actors in it are awful, and it's edited REALLY poorly.
25. The Last House On The Left
- Wes Craven's debut feature, produced by Sean Cunningham who would later go onto direct Friday the 13th. This is a classic simply because it broke most of the taboos still around in1972 - drugs, rape, murder, torture, mutilation, girl-on-girl oral sex at gunpoint, the dissolution of the family. The reason this was possible the year that Frenzy was still considered graphic is that Craven and Cunningham never cut the film for the ratings board, they simply stole the R rating from another movie print and stuck it on their master, so yep, uncut violence distributed with an R rating, probably the first and only time it's happened in this country. The movie itself, well it suffers from being a pioneer of it's kind, it's really tone deaf in a lot of places. Craven and the actors are really not ready for prime time yet, though in places - like the guy playing Weasel's oddly at ease portrayal of a psychopath, and the fantastically edited (Craven was editor as well) torture/murder of the girl in the lake, which has the strangest, loping pace that mirrors the panic and exhaustion of the victim. The point they were trying to make with the fake Butch and Sundance music - yeah, violence is being ignored by the culture, it still works as an idea but in execution its just really annoying music in between horrific torture and abuse. Definitely worth seeing from a historical perspective, and maybe Craven and Cunningham were never going to be as good again as professionals as they are as amatuers with a point to prove, but I can definitely see someone coming to this in 2012 and asking what all the fuss is about. That R rating, that shit is important, and I think maybe it being dated might overshadow the amazing mountain climb that is stealing a 15 second blue strip off an old print of some movie in the same editing suite they were sitting in. That's the Everest, Kilimanjaro, K2, and fucking Olympus Mons of avoiding censorship in American film. The movies good, and that's always the most important thing. but here that is almost beside the point.
-Sean Witzke, 2012