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Outliers: ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

Outliers: 'The Cabin in the Woods'

Outliers are statistical anomalies, results that deviate wildly from the rest of a data set (they’re also a Malcolm Gladwell book, but that’s really not relevant right now).  In film criticism terms, outliers are the few brave souls who fall on the opposite side of a massive critical consensus.  These are their stories.

I’m freshly returned from the South by Southwest Film Festival, land of barbecue, booze, and micro-budget cinema.  Though SXSW is a great place to discover independent film, it also usually premieres at least a handful of bigger movies as a way to draw attention to the festival and get some movie stars down to Austin, like this year’s Opening Night Film, “The Cabin in the Woods.”  Directed by Drew Goddard and written and produced by TV auteur/mogul (and future “Avengers” director) Joss Whedon, the film went over like gangbusters with the Austin, Texas crowd, as well it should: the film is not only scary and funny, it’s also a very intelligent dissection of the process by which horror movies are made and digested.  Everywhere I went in Austin, every line I stood on, every bar I wandered into, there were “Cabin” fans.  Hanging out in the convention center one morning, I found myself seated next to two lovely film fans who’d flown in from overseas to enjoy the festival, and waited two hours in the pouring rain the watch “The Cabin in the Woods” here.  Even though they had to see it while they were wetter than a well-used kitchen sponge, they still loved it.

Still, despite the obsessions of commenters on Metacritic, no consensus is perfect or complete.  Buried beneath the hallelujah chorus, there have been a few negative reactions crying out to be heard and considered.  Of those, I like Nick Schager‘s piece for Slant best, mostly because our takes on the film are so similar, except for one key difference: I loved it and he did not.  Here’s an excerpt from his piece (which is vaguely SPOILER-y, so if you’re trying to go into the film completely cold, stop reading):

“By calling direct attention to its scenario’s phoniness, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ follows its villains’ lead by reducing its characters to mere pawns in a critical-theory game in which their survival or demise is something to be anticipated (since we’re implicitly asked to “figure out” how the film will screw with our expectations) rather than dreaded. There’s no emotion to be felt because, even once they empower themselves, Dana and company aren’t real people but devices in a conceptual stunt, and thus whether they’re felled by a zombie wielding a bear trap attached to a long chain, or eaten by a giant snake, flying bat, or roaring werewolf, is irrelevant.”

Scariness in film, like funniness in film, is totally subjective.  Everyone has their own phobias and fears; I had a friend in college who refused to see any movie that featured vomit.  And if she accidentally wandered into one, watch out (speaking of which: Heather, if you’re reading this, do NOT go see “Fat Kid Rules the World.”  I can’t stress this enough).  So I can’t take Schager to task for not finding “Cabin in the Woods” scary just because I did.  Still, it seems like he’s asking an awful lot here.  He likes the “canny” commentary and “playful good humor” but feels like it gets in the way of actual horror.  Personally, I still thought there were some legitimately spooky moments, and even a few moments that creeped me out while they made me laugh at the same time.  But even if there hadn’t, isn’t there something to be said for a smart film that takes some chances, understands genre, and deploys it in an unusual way?  How many schlock horror movies come out every year with nothing on their mind at all?  At least “The Cabin in the Woods” has a head on its shoulders, even if it could cut that head off in a slightly more terrifying way.

“The Cabin in the Woods” opens April 13th.  We’ll see whether the consensus continues or disintegrates next month.

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