Billy Gray

Slash and Burn

In Movie Reviews on May 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Joss Whedon is married, more or less happily, to hokey genre entertainment: he knows sci-fi and horror like the back of his hand, and clearly loves them, even as he mocks and dissects their trappings, hoping to refine them through deconstructive criticism. He made his name with the TV adaptation of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a revered gothic-comic take on the forgettable Valley Girl film spoof he wrote. “Buffy” peppered the vampire-as-sex metaphor with sly high school soap opera. With “The Cabin in the Woods,” which Whedon wrote with director Drew Goddard, the fanboy favorite tweaks the slasher flick formula. But unlike “Buffy,” “Cabin” is too slick and abstracted to work as horror or satire, adding to the case that po-mo horror should have begun and ended with “Scream,” or at least its first inferior sequel.

The trouble starts early. A cheesy Freemason-esque credits sequence is broken by a cut to two geeky co-workers chattering in the cavernous antiseptic office space built for every corporate satire film set.  Cue freeze-frame and blaring ominous score, then cut to a group of nubile idiots—meathead, floozie, semi-virgin, brain and stoner sage—packing for a weekend in the woods. Clearly, we’re in for an arch, bumpy ride that will make little to no sense beyond its central lampoonery.“Cabin” telegraphs everything (save an appreciated Sigourney Weaver cameo at the end). “Scream” did too, right from the opening sequence, endlessly parodied itself, in which the killer made his victim answer slasher trivia before gutting her like a fish. But “Scream” wasn’t above being scary: the laughs broke up the fear without dispelling it. Whenever “Cabin” comes close to jolting the viewer, it cuts back to the gleaming lab where those geeky co-workers are pulling the strings and deploying the prototypical villains that will do away with characters that Whedon and Goddard don’t even provide with consciously cliched development.

The puppeteers in short-sleeved Oxford shirts could stand in for studio heads, hack writers or the audiences they court. The irony, and certainly condescension, is thicker than it was in “Scream” and even “Funny Games,” whose nihilism kept the parody subtle until a direct audience condemnation from the glib home invader that was more damning than any of “Cabin’s” wink-wink. (The killer’s direct scolding of viewers in “Funny Games,” and the film’s infamous self-rewind, followed the initial carnage rather than interrupting it.)

Whedon directed an episode of “Glee,” and he shares with that meta-sitcom’s creator Ryan Murphy an affinity for genre gamesmanship and apparent stock characters distinguished by their casual, flippant eloquence. What’s irritating about “Glee,” aside from a slavish devotion to the most middlebrow music, is a tendency to forgive, or explain away, its narrative laziness by acknowledging that laziness: “this plotline is beyond ridiculous, yes, but our savvy awareness of its stupidity elevates us, and you, above it.” By avoiding Murphy’s trademark camp, Whedon has skirted smugness.

“Cabin in the Woods,” by disassembling a low-rent horror movie to the point where horror and its mechanics take up jarringly different halves of the movie (until a messy kitchen sink conclusion), makes you long for a more respectful treatment, be it a withering, but hooked, MST3K peanut gallery or a schlocky and straight-faced attempt at the real, risible thing.

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