JR: I'll go you one further and suggest that innovation can be overrated. An expert's repetition of a tried-and-true formula can be deeply satisfying (see the collected albums of AC/DC). The thing that bones me the most about "Cabin" is its lack of follow-through: It's so clever about pointing out the clichés of horror -- and deploys its wit via some terrific comic acting -- that when the movie finally gets around to mounting a climax, it has accidentally neutered itself. If all the rules no longer apply, then why don't any of these characters persuasively feel fear? Even the middle managers are snarky during their own death scenes. It's as if the movie is "too cool" to be a horror film.
Horror, though, sometimes has a way of working despite the knowing wink of its makers. Some of the most significant remakes in cinema happen to be of horror films: Cronenberg's "The Fly," Carpenter's "The Thing," Gore Verbinski's "The Ring." Honestly, I don't think these remakes succeed because they're smartened up by superior directors slyly hitting the expected notes of a knowing audience. They succeed because they are observant of the technical beats that serve the material. You can't really fake the funk. Horror is a craftsman's genre (not a TV director's).
JZ: I never thought I would be sticking up for comic meta-horror, but here goes: I think you are asking the movie to be something it doesn’t want or aim to be. It's alienating and snarky throughout, and in terms of artistic intentions, it doesn’t want to sacrifice this style in order to become the kind of intense horror film that you and I like best. It’s horror-comedy, maybe even just comedy. Now you might not like that genre, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the decision to go for silly, winking, grand guignol gore at the end is simply that they were trying to be cool. It’s perfectly consistent with the rest of the movie. If the characters reacted the way those did at the end of "High Tension," it would be stylistically jarring. I believe "Cabin in the Woods" knows exactly what it wants to be. I also found the last act somewhat of a let-down, because the chaos of the violence didn't seem particularly clever or well shot. I wanted a young Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi to take over for the finale.
JR: I think it comes down to the different flavors of horror-comedy: I like mine on the rare side. Jason, you're absolutely right that a plunge into "High Tension" territory would be wrong, yet the Looney Tunes aesthetic could have been wrought with more flair. (And why *don't* we see that apocalypse everyone's afraid of?) Notice how there are no complaints when the movie is "Shaun of the Dead," essentially a chatty Britcom yet zombierific enough to satisfy on horror grounds. As Jason already knows, one of my favorite movies is "Creepshow," which not only casts Leslie Nielsen in a witty EC Comics homage, but traumatizes viewers of the right age. (Roaches!)
Maybe we should close this conversation by providing some alternatives. Since neither of you seem poised to put "Cabin in the Woods" on your top ten list by the end of the year, what do you consider to be some of the better horror films released in recent weeks or months? What are you eagerly anticipating?
JR: I'm loving the way Hollywood is rising to the occasion of some big-ticket horror that's on the horizon. Which "Prometheus" trailer do I prefer? All of them. Paramount's "World War Z" was nearly a prestige December release, until the studio decided to play it for next summer. And hope springs eternal for "Piranha 3DD" (you think I'm kidding, but the first one was trashy fun and beyond gross).
JZ: Yes to trashy fun! That last "Piranha," directed by the virtuoso behind "High Tension" in a wildly different style, had one of the greatest bloodbath scenes ever. The "Cabin the Woods" filmmakers could have shot an apocalypse with the same success (even if they wanted to, which I don't think they did; the ancient ones are best left to the imagination).
For true visual panache, horror fans will probably have to wait another year for the next Guillermo Del Toro film "Pacific Rim." No one designs more original monsters in the genre today. I am also excited about "Prometheus" and haven’t seen a better roll-out to a movie in a long time. There isn’t much horror at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, but the film that looks most promising appears, coincidentally enough, to be a cabin in the woods movie that doesn’t wink at the audience. Check out the trailer for "Resolution." Then again, there is that talk of storytelling and beginning, middle and ends. Maybe there’s no escape.