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Note: Due to a series of mix-ups I didn’t actually get my review copy of Cabin in the Woods until the Friday after its release date. Thankfully, Jonathan bought a copy for himself and offered to help me finish my review in a timely manner by writing up the technical stuff himself. So, the feature and overall sections that follow are mine, but the video, audio, and extras info all belong to Jonathan, who I thank very, very much.

Feature


Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen. If you think you know this story, think again…

 Cabin in the Woods, The
Post-modern and referential horror films span a long tradition, going back to a time before even Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein, and every time I think the post-modern horror movement is dead something comes along to resurrect it, injecting fandom in the arm with much needed adrenaline. Following Wes Craven’s Scream, it seemed that referential horror had been pushed to its limit, leading to a long, sad period of post-slashers that generally no one enjoyed (not that the keepers of the horror kingdom, Jason or Freddy, hadn’t already lost their bite in favour of comedy). Eventually this, along with Scary Movie sequel fatigue and changes in 21st century politics, pushed horror cinema back into a more straight-faced arena where genre subversion took a back seat to social subtext, as seen throughout the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, following a long round of particularly tongue-in-cheek horror films from the likes of Hammer Studios and Roger Corman. But even these films were referential. When they weren’t direct remakes, they were brimming with nostalgia for a darker period and might as well have been remakes. Horror was still largely a post-modern phenomenon; it just didn’t have a sense of humour about it, save a handful of films that only really hit with elite fandom, like Eli Roth’s more specifically referential Cabin Fever, Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask, Quentin Dupieux’s extremely subversive Rubber, and the less intellectual, stylistic homage movies that came out of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ Grindhouse.

Word of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods seeped through the horror fan-o-sphere over it’s two-year stint in post-production hell, but even the most ardent supporters, myself included, found it difficult to maintain interest. Did we really need another film making fun of the clichés and conventions of modern horror film? Reactions to the delayed fourth film in the Scream series appeared to have put the nail in that particular coffin. The prospect seemed bleak. A handful of truly brilliant and exciting films aside (Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, Roth’s Hostel Part II, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead), horror’s comedic future has been in major flux for some time now. I’m not going to say Cabin in the Woods is so good that it entirely reinvigorates the failing horror-comedy tradition. It’s too flawed, often downright messy, to be championed as some kind of ‘future classics’ (at least not just yet), and too niche to have a lasting effect on the genre mainstream, but it’s easily the most exciting thing to happen to post-modern/referential horror in some time. Conventional audiences are certainly invited to the party, but Cabin in the Woods is made for fringe fans (re: nerds) that live for in-jokes and Easter Eggs and it placates us so effectively it might as well be re-categorized as horror-geek pornography.

 Cabin in the Woods, The
Goddard and Whedon, two creative leads on the film that appear to be truly inseparable (just watch the behind the scenes) despite their respected director and producer credits, poke fun at the genre, even directly criticizing some of the more recent subgenre movements (that pesky, dubiously titled ‘torture porn’ thing in particular), but they do it in good nature and never while looking down on their audience’s supposed tastes. Most of us are more than happy to be associated with murderous elder gods, thank you very much. It’s certainly better than revisiting the tired, endless chicken-and-egg debate of whether violent entertainment breeds violent viewership that really hasn’t developed much in proper film text since the first Scream (though it’s certainly an ongoing and potent part of the subtext of Japanese horror and the Hostel films). Though, Cabin in the Woods is not without its explicit subversions of film violence, specifically the heartbreaking/hilarious sequence where a character is beaten to a bloody pulp in the background as the folks ‘downstairs’ have a lame office party set to an REO Speedwagon song.

Speaking of Wes Craven and Scream, he made another metatextual horror film two years before Scream called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. New Nightmare has its defenders, lots of them, in fact, but I’ve always found its humourless approach to commenting on the horror fiction dull and Craven’s self-indulgence frightfully pretentious. However, Craven was definitely on to something with his notion of horror stories, like the Nightmare on Elm Street series (which he saw as hopelessly detached from his original film by this, its sixth sequel), needing to be told to keep ancient evil at bay. Goddard and Whedon’s approach to the apparent need to retell the same tales ad nauseum is more literal than Craven’s, going so far as to create a mostly specified mythological basis, which, along with the more humourous approach, makes all the difference. An aside: Nightmare on Elm Street and New Nightmare star Heather Langenkamp-Anderson and her husband, David Leroy Anderson, own and operate AFX Studio, the special FX make-up firm that created practical effects for Cabin in the Woods. In an incredible show of restraint on Goddard’s part, she is heavily featured on the extras, but not in the film itself.

 Cabin in the Woods, The
One clever and, so far, mostly overlooked aspect of Goddard and Whedon’s script is the fact that they separate horror mythology by cultural regions. In the most obvious terms this leads to all the hilarious Japanese ghost girl gags, but it also helps put at least some limits on the insanity and leads to my favourite obscure in-jokes where we see glimpses of the worldwide system (nuclear fallout in Stockholm, devil-gorilla in Buenos Aires, some kind of Spanish castle explosion in Madrid). They’re so obscure I don’t even get them! But Cabin in the Woods isn’t only a collection of obscure references; in fact, one of the film’s greatest strengths is the way some of the best jokes can be seen from miles off without dulling their impact. Based on my somewhat limited knowledge of Joss Whedon’s output (mainly Firefly, Dollhouse, and some of his comic book work), it seems that this is a specialty of his. He’s very good at telling an audience specifically what they’re going to get and still getting the laugh or cheer when it’s handed over (I’m thinking the merman gag in particular here). I also really love living in a world where Fran Kranz is an action hero. Besides generally adoring his work on Dollhouse, post-modern/referential horror has a habit of pussying out (for lack of a better word) when it comes to making a hero of the audience surrogate, opting instead for yet another Ash Williams or Snake Plisskens. Yes, we all love a badass, but most of us aren’t ever going to forgive Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven for killing Randy off so early in Scream 2. Again, Kranz being the unlikely action hero is an entirely unsurprising, possibly even uninspiring joke, but it works through sheer conviction and the fact that his character turn is merely a bridge to the film’s all-out barrage of awesome – the third act.

The third act of Cabin in the Woods is so much fun that I’m actually incapable of thinking about it critically. It’s the tastiest over-indulgence I’ve had all year and that includes Whedon’s other massively enjoyable placation salad, The Avengers. He and Goddard (again, I’m not sure who to credit with what and the more behind the scenes info I learn, the more difficult it becomes) shovel spoonful after hearty spoonful of exactly what we want into our gobs for something like thirty-minutes straight. There’s simply no time to stop and care about our fattening bellies and plaque-crusting arteries. The negative criticisms about the movie being too chock-full of stuff to properly engage with the material are probably accurate. There’s no reason for everyone to enjoy this movie, nor would we want it that way. But, I hope that even the most negative of Nellies can appreciate the pure filmic effort put into the chaotic climax (on a pretty modest budget too) and that they understand the difference between this particular brand of placation over the empty, cynical placation of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. It’s funny, watching the film the first time I spent my energy trying to absorb all the Easter eggs found in the cabin’s cellar and on the whiteboard (as if it was possible on a single viewing) – not knowing I was yet to experience the single most overwhelming onslaught of horror cinema references imaginable. I’ve never wanted to shout ‘Stop the movie!’ at the projector’s booth than that pullout shot of…well, if you’ve seen the movie you probably know the shot. Then they really ‘get this party started’ and that shot seemed downright quaint.

 Cabin in the Woods, The

Video


Lionsgate brings The Cabin in the Woods to Blu-ray with a faithful 1080p transfer that looks much like the picture quality I experienced in theaters. Among all the throwback elements of the film, Goddard and Whedon chose to shoot it in 35mm, and it looks great. Using film brings more personality and texture to the ominous forest and splintery wooden walls. Detail looks great, though occasionally murky in the more effects-heavy shots. Grain is pretty light, but consistent throughout the full movie. Colors look great, with warmer shades looking especially vibrant. Most of the scenes inside the cabin are lit by gas lamps and a fireplace, so the overall palette is on the warmer side. As things get darker and the movie moves beyond the cabin, the palette becomes much more cool and manufactured. The transfer holds up splendidly in both circumstances. Black levels aren't always perfect. Sometimes they appear murky and brown, but it could very well be the result of a filter used because I remember seeing the same thing in theaters. The very few issues that exist seem inherent to the source, and not a shortcoming of the film's transition to the Blu-ray format.

 Cabin in the Woods, The

Audio


Here is where this release really shines. Lionsgate has graced this release with a hefty DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track. I don't get many opportunities to take full advantage of my 7.1 setup. Usually it is older films that have been remixed to include additional channels, but a sound mix that was made for 7.1 from the start uses the space so much better. Even in the opening scene, there is plenty of background chatter and footsteps in the surround channels. Voices echo off the large concrete interior. It's evident right from the start that some time and dedication was given to this track. I picked up on a lot of subtleties that I never caught onto in my theatrical viewings. The LFE channel gets many opportunities to shine, as it should in any good horror movie. Whenever there's a jump scene or a loud startle, every channel bursts to life with an appropriate jolt. Dialogue is never difficult to comprehend and always feels like it matches the environment on screen. Once all chaos breaks out in the third act, you'll lose track of all the directional effects. I really couldn't ask for more from this audio track.

 Cabin in the Woods, The

Extras


Extras kick off with an Audio Commentary featuring Writer/Director Drew Goddard and Writer/Producer Joss Whedon. Do I even need to tell you that this audio commentary is worth listening to? I had the pleasure of seeing these two gentlemen during a Q&A at SXSW, and they have a hilarious rapport with one another. This commentary track thrives on that rapport. When they aren't making quips, they give a very informative account of the film. They praise a lot of the actors work, talk about shooting in certain locations, and cover the origins of most of the movie's brilliant ideas. The commentary occasionally gets off topic and they deviate from what is happening on screen when I would've liked some back story, but it happens infrequently enough to not be a major issue. They spend a lot of time talking about tricky balance they had to maintain between the two worlds of the movie and their wildly different tones. They clearly had fun writing this project and working on it, and their passion for the project shows in their commentary coverage. Fans shouldn't pass it up.

There's a feature called It's Not What You Think: The Cabin in the Woods Bonus View Mode, which basically turns on a picture-in-picture feature where small interview segments pop up at the bottom of the screen that pertain to what is happening in the film. There isn't a lot of new information here, and the feature isn't quite as well fleshed out as Warner Bros. Maximum Movie Mode. The interview window is also very small, even on a large television set. But the concept is neat and fans that can't get enough background information on the movie will find it worth their time.

 Cabin in the Woods, The
We Are Not Who We Are: The Making of 'The Cabin in the Woods' (HD, 28:33) is a very entertaining making-of. It starts off with Whedon and Goddard talking about the origin of the story. Apparently they both got a hotel room, started writing in it, and didn't leave until they were finished. This was inspired by their Buffy the Vampire Slayer days when they would have to write scripts quickly as a necessity, and they enjoyed it. From there the making-of branches out into a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of them shooting the film; both in the woods/cabin area and also the control room scenes. There's some cast and producer interviews sprinkled in there, but most of the interview footage is Goddard and Whedon. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins give a quick and humorous tour of the control room. The third chunk of this featurette focuses on the third act of the film and how much work went into all of the logistics and special effects. It's a great little feature for fans of the film.

The Secret Secret Stash (HD, 13:07) is a two part featurette. The first part is Fran Kranz showing off all of the drug paraphernalia that the set designers made for him. The second is a short tour of the cabin set led by Joss Whedon. Next up is An Army of Nightmares: Makeup & Animatronic Effects (HD, 12:10), which is a short but awesome look at the special effects team behind the movies. It's hard to get into the details of what is shown without giving away some of the movie's surprises, but it's fun to see how crafty the effects team is and how practical a lot of the effects in the movie are.

Primal Terror: Visual Effects (HD, 12:07) is another effects piece in the same vain as the previous featurette, but this one focuses on the CGI elements of the film. Goddard expresses how much he loves practical effects and how naive he was to think they could only use practical effects to sell some of the ideas in the movie. But it is agreed upon that CGI was a necessity. There's a lot of neat footage here, and it's awesome to see how the team overcame some of their obstacles. There is a lot of exceptional green screen work and effect compositing, and getting to see how some of it was done is a real treat. Wondercon Q&A (HD, 27:30) is a lengthy Q&A session that takes place after a screening of the film. The interviewers questions mostly cover information that other Blu-ray features have already thoroughly recovered, like the origin of the project and the balancing of tone. Things get a little sillier when audience members start to take questions. Whedon and Goddard have some humorous reactions, like when a woman asks for detailed logistics of a blood sacrifice made in the film.

 Cabin in the Woods, The

Overall


Hi, Gabe again. I risk overselling Cabin in the Woods by praising it so excitedly. I have to be honest with myself and admit that the effect the film has had on the non-fan world is relatively minimal, especially compared to the post-modern phenomenon that was Scream. I also have to admit that I don’t necessarily want a series of Cabin in the Woods-inspired horror comedies. I’d actually rather see a bunch of weirdo Rubber rip-offs flooding the market. That would be amazing. But Cabin in the Woods is an outstandingly fun motion picture, one that will likely win over even the most squeamishly anti-genre viewers. I also believe time will be very kind to this movie and can’t wait to see what co-writer/director Drew Goddard does next. This Blu-ray release looks great within the limits of the source, sounds incredible, and features a bevy of entertaining extras that I’m sure I’ll finish dipping into very soon.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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