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Blu-ray Review: The Cabin In The Woods

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Producer Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, The Avengers) teams back up with pal and director Drew Goddard (Buffy, Cloverfield) to create their skewed re-imagining of a teen horror movie. The film stars Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz (a Whedon-alum from Dollhouse), Kristin Connolly and Jesse Williams.

The Movie

The Cabin In The Woods starts to show its hand with its title, which is about as generic as they come for teen horror movies. And that’s by design, as is most every detail of the movie. Things open up in predictable fashion with five good-looking college students getting ready for a weekend out in the woods. One of their cousins had a cabin, of course, so let’s go check it out, right? They hop in a van, go out in the country, meet a creepy guy along the way and finally get to a run-down shack of a cabin in the darkest, farthest corner of the woods. Sound familiar?

What’s less familiar is when the scenes cut to what appears to be an underground research facility. Lab-coated specialists are getting ready for something, and it seems to involve these teens in the woods. People report in on the teens movements, their every turn captured on video monitors, and lingo thrown out about how everything needs to go to plan. But who are these people? Are they monitoring them, controlling them, or experimenting with them?

And a reviewer’s code of conduct dictates that I say no more. Since the entire rest of the movie hinges on the mystery of everything that happens next, you’ll have to experience it for yourself. But what we can talk about is both the tone of the film and what it is about this picture that is different from other pictures that litter the teen horror genre.

In many ways, The Cabin In The Woods is a love letter from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard to this whole genre of predictable horror. It’s as if they reluctantly admit that while 95% of films that start out this way are cookie-cutter and eye-rollingly generic at best, they still can’t get enough of them. And because of this affection they set out to “fix it” and make a good version using these tired cliches as starting points and then transforming them into something much more creative.

It’s these constant allusions to predictable structure that inject the film with humor. Sometimes the characters take the obvious, pre-ordained route, sometimes they veer off in a completely different direction, and then sometimes the characters themselves become self-aware long enough to realize they’re following a cliched path and seem to say “Wait… really?” It’s a movie that completely relies on these cliches to work, but than almost always does something different and unique with them.

And this genre is so rife with examples of this plot structure being hammered out less than creatively that there is plenty of source material to lampoon. But Whedon and Goddard make the important choice of not turning this into a spoof. This isn’t a movie simply there to generate laughs at the expense of time-tested conventions. It’s still a horror movie of its own, and it takes that seriously. But it’s a horror movie about horror movies, and through both humorous and less-than-humorous moments strives to infuse itself both logically and creatively into the canon. It’s a tricky tightrope walk and one that is expertly handled here.

Video / Audio

This is an excellent video transfer, or at least what you can see of it. So much of the movie occurs in ridiculously low light that even with all the lights out you’ll often be squinting to make out movements. But that is by design, as that feeling of dark isolation is sort of a good thing in a horror film. But the amount of noise they’re able to keep out of those many low light shots is actually rather impressive. And then when scenes are more amply lit, the detail of the picture comes through ably. Color is an important counter-balance to the darkness and the tonal range they’re able to seamlessly maintain between bright daytime shots and suffocating night is extremely well handled.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is strong and jumps out when it needs to, although it doesn’t seem to be overly burdened with surround effects in the first half of the picture. Perhaps this is in keeping with the genre’s predecessors, where things jumping out of the left rear speaker may not have been the highest goal. A general atmospheric immersion is present, but it’s not used as gimmickry. Of course, that all changes once the chaos begins to ensue, at which point every speaker eventually becomes littered with mayhem. And they also don’t mind jumping things out at you when appropriate. The audio is forceful and clear, and the clever dialogue is always appropriately balanced, which is really the most important thing.

Bonus Material

Not only is the supplemental section extensive, but for a change it’s informative. The commentary track featuring Whedon and Goddard is breezy fun, and chock full of tidbits regarding filming. It’s one of the more enjoyable commentary tracks I’ve heard in quite some time. The bonus view mode, entitled “It’s Not What You Think”, by contrast is a waste of time. Not only is the inset picture-in-picture video so ridiculously small as to cause eye strain (especially when they try to list small names underneath the already small talking heads), but some of the content is covered much better in the commentary track.

“We Are Not Who We Are: Making of The Cabin In The Woods” (HD, 28:33) is a general behind-the-scenes look and interview feature about the film. “The Secret Secret Stash” (HD, 13:07) consists of two sections where Fran Kranz (“Marty”) and Joss Whedon each take a turn showing you a little peak behind the curtain of props and set.

“An Army Of Nightmares: Make-Up and Animatronic FX” (HD,12:10) lets the props and makeup folks detail how they went about creating a genre-full of monsters and foes. “Primal Terror: Visual Effects” (HD, 12:07) is similar, only with the effects department detailing out their finishing touches, and balancing that with the creators’ desire to use physical over digital effects whenever possible. “Wonder-Con Q&A” (HD, 27:30) is a moderated chat with Whedon & Goddard followed by some audience questions, where the creators get to detail out even more of how they came to create the film. The theatrical trailer (HD, 2:27) is also included.

Conclusion

It’s fun, it’s smart, and it’s still a horror movie. That’s both a rare combination and reason enough to give this film a try. If you’re tired of horror dregs that continually insult your intelligence with recycled plot structures, endless diluted sequels and little more than disgusting horror-porn as their catch, this film is for you. Or even if you’re not an avid horror movie watcher, but find yourself wanting to give a “good, funny one” a try – which is where I found myself – this film is for you. The Blu-ray is a winning combination of a good film, excellent technical presentation and a mix of thorough and engrossing extras. Recommended.

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About David R Perry

  • SoupOrMan

    We just received Cabin in the Woods and I think that saying the writers have made something much more creative seems like a bit of an understatement. It is as if they have created their own genre of movie. I have never seen a film that was scary, unpredictable, and hilarious at the same time. I was talking to this guy at work and he admitted that it was funnier than a lot of the comedies that have come out this year. The graphics were great too.