The tagline for this film was, “If you hear a strange sound outside, have sex.” Similar to Pauline Kael’s famous description of the basic appeal of movies as “kiss kiss, bang bang,” this tagline actually describes horror movies in a nutshell. However, like Kael’s statement and the later film named after it (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang [Shane Black, USA 2005]), it also conveys that this film, in spite of its immediate appearances, is a piece of self-referential comedy.
Self-referential comedy is of course very popular with solipsistic Hollywood: films like The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992) and Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, USA 1980) are clearly and openly commentaries on the industry of which they are a part while others like Scream (Wes Craven, USA 1996) and the brilliant The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, USA 1997) have taken the approach of wrapping the self-referential comedy inside a slightly-more-ridiculous-than-normal narrative that is itself much of the joke. This film follows the latter path, building a cleverly cliche plot about five college students who go to visit a cabin in the woods for a vacation, the type of story we’ve seen in approximately one million horror films before, but adding a second behind-the-scenes (so-to-speak) plot that explains all of the silliness.
For about an hour, this film is excellent. We are intercutting between the traditional horror sequence unfolding at the cabin and an unexplained office-type setup where a whole cadre of people are, for some reason, watching the action, manipulating it through a series of devices to force the cabin narrative to follow horror film norms. First-time director Drew Goddard shows a surprising visual sense, opening the film with a very ’70s-style sequence at the “office” that’s shot in a rather grainy stock with bright lighting and a color palate heavy on browns and whites. Then, as we are introduced to the cabin narrative, we see the visuals change completely. The lighting becomes more varied and dynamic, the dominant color becomes amber (following what was the industry norm for outdoor scenes until about a decade ago, when the orange-blue color scheme began to take over the entire industry). Unfortunately, these successes are rather made up (made down?) for when we get some really bad CGI mountain shots and both sequences move into nighttime, changing to a typical blue-heavy, low-key lighting, orange-blue-colored scheme. It’s especially unfortunate that Goddard stops differentiating the two worlds, because the setup of the film is so perfect for using such visual imagination. Even after this point, though, the film remains visually competent–it just becomes overly conventional for my taste.
The cabin sequence is a wonderful (and delightfully short–it really moves along at a good pace and stops itself from falling into being what it’s parodying) trip through all of the cliches of this type of horror film. The characters are so obvious as to be (appropriately) laughable: the (supposedly) sexy dumb blonde slut (It even follows the horror movie tradition of casting a “sexy” girl whom I don’t find even slightly attractive. I’m convinced that somehow they test these on me first.), the (supposedly) un-sexy nerdy goody-two-shoes girl who we all know will be our hero, the seemingly-stupid-but-strangely-wise comic relief nerd, the studly jerk guy, and the decent guy. It changes the norms a bit in a few ways to tell us it’s not going to be exactly what we’re used to: the sexy dumb blonde is a pre-med student, the studly guy appears to have a brain and not be such a jerk, and they’re college students instead of the usual high school students. It all works very well, playing on the targets of its satire with a perfectly light touch. It continues in the same vein, hitting every step on the typical horror narrative, paying homage to them as it pokes fun at them. It’s clever and fun, and never takes itself, even its own sense of humor, too seriously.
The office sequence, meanwhile, gives the filmmakers a way to comment on the silliness and make points about it as they wish. Meanwhile, they are dropping some rather obvious hints that in the end this is all a part of some religious ritual. The workers bet on which monsters will get called forth, and there are few things in film history much funnier than the betting board we see there, which shows just how formulaic horror films really are.
However, as great as the film is for an hour, when the two worlds merge for a formulaic climax, everything falls apart. It becomes a more traditional horror movie with just a few gags (Though at least it keeps the CGI levels much lower than most films seem to do now.), losing the clever touch that it had for the first hour and its entire mise-en-scene. While it may seem appropriate to end this setup with an overlong explanation scene and explain everything away as a sacrifice to “the old gods,” the fact is that at this point the film has become what it skewered. There isn’t that same light sense of humor at the end, and that failure is grating coming after so much success.
All told, it was definitely a fun film to watch and far more worth seeing than most films. Its run time comes in just over 90 minutes, and the first hour is as much fun as you can have watching a film, so a rather weak final act doesn’t kill everything. It’s the kind of fun horror movie that gets made too rarely, with Hollywood stuck on self-serious studies in hyper-conservatism dressed up with torture porn instead of letting horror films be the popcorn films they were once upon a time. It relies too much on CGI and much of it is more conventional than I would like, but those visual flaws are relatively minor considering the cleverness on display and the visual strength of the first act.
- I didn’t say anything about the acting, because there are no characters of note for anyone to play. No one stands out in a good or a bad one, because no one really has anything to do. It was nice to see Bradley Whitford, who was so good on The West Wing but seems to have dropped completely out of sight since. Kristen Connolly had one really terrible scene (though it’s difficult to tell, given the setup, whether that was intentional). That’s really all I can say at all.
- 2011 was really a pretty good year for Hollywood, in spite of naming one of the worst Best Picture winners in Oscar history: Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/USA), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA), and Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA/United Arab Emirates) were all fantastic films, and Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA) and this film were also excellent. 2012, not so much.
- If anyone wondered about more specifics as to the comment about the characters being in the wrong roles: Dana, the Virgin, was just having an affair with one of her professors, was not subtle about her interest in Holden, and of course spent the first ten minutes of the film without pants on. She is almost certainly the Whore. Curt, the Athlete, is at school on an academic scholarship and was providing advice to Dana about what to read for her courses. He is almost certainly the Scholar. Jules, the Whore, is a goofy, funny person who makes a joke out of everything possible. She is almost certainly the Fool. Marty, the Fool, is incredibly uncomfortable with sexuality and comments that he once made out with Jules but that the relationship went no further. He is almost certainly the virgin. Holden, the Scholar, “has the best hands on the team” and catches a football with seemingly no warning that it’s coming when we first see him. He is almost certainly the Athlete.
- There are interesting little jokes throughout this film that are worth discussion, ranging from the characters’ relationships to what exactly is on the board in the office and to what each is a reference. It’s the kind of film one can spend a lot of time dissecting and find more humor with each time through.