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SXSW 2012 Review: Cabin in the Woods by Brent Moore

It was more than two years ago that I first thought I would get a chance to see Cabin in the Woods. The film, shot in 2009, was rumored to be a secret screening at Fantastic Fest here in Austin. They were even handing out posters, each with phrase poking fun at horror tropes. “If you hear a loud noise outside….have sex.”

Alas, the rumors proved false, but the movie was supposed to come out in a few months anyway. Then MGM went bankrupt and Cabin in the Woods was shelved. A tough blow for the movie, and for the legion of Joss Whedon fans excited to see him and his crew take another shot at a feature length movie. Cut to this past weekend, two years later, where Cabin opened SXSW to near universal praise. I’d say it was worth the wait.

It’s tough to talk about the movie since much of the joy lies in the surprise. The less you know, the better. Unfortunately, the initial trailer, which I managed not to see until after viewing the movie, already gives away slightly too much. I’ll just say that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take your standard horror set up of a small group of college kids taking an ill advised vacation to the backwoods, and then proceed to deconstruct and then expand that into something jaw droppingly awesome.

The deconstruction is fun but, despite a unique premise, isn’t something particularly new. Ever since Scream this kind of meta commentary has become commonplace and audiences are well aware of the cliches. The recounting of horror movie rules doesn’t have the same effect as it did a decade ago. Just recently, movies like Behind the Mask and Tucker and Dale have found equally unique ways to cover the same ground. So while that bit is enjoyable, if that’s all Cabin was it wouldn’t have made much of an impact. The expansion, however, is spectacular. Just when you think you know what the movie is, it turns to something else and rides a geek adrenaline high all the way till the end.

Joss and Drew, writer of Cloverfield and many Buffy/Angel episodes, are masters at creating “the moment”. The build up and pay off of set pieces are absolutely perfect. It’s musical in the way everything flows together and builds to a climax. This is a movie where they somehow made the ‘ding’ of an arriving elevator one of the most exciting things you’ve ever seen. It’s impressive.

The cast is a mix of Whedon regulars and new faces, and maybe a surprise appearance or two. Kristin Connolly is perfectly charming and sympathetic as the ‘virgin’ lead. Chris “Thor” Hemsworth takes a backseat in this pre-fame ‘jock’ role and it’s interesting to see him play a college kid after larger than life turns as a god and Kirk’s dad. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are wonderful and provide the films biggest laughs. The only performance I had an issue with was from Dollhouse co-star Fran Kranz. Fran is the ‘stoner’ of our stereotypical group and is given some of the best lines, but he overplays the “I’m so high, man” thing and is never believable. This is particularly unfortunate since his character is essentially the audience surrogate. He’s the one who speaks for us, just in a silly voice.

Even Kranz is redeemed by the films incredible climax, though. It’s something that must be seen, preferably with a group of like minded friends. It’s a fist pumping, spontaneous clapping, holy shit celebration. During the Q&A, an audience member asked the crew if they knew they were making the last horror movie ever. In some ways that feels accurate, as this takes the genre and blows it sky high. It’ll be interesting to see what future filmmakers make from the rubble.

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