The Cabin in the Woods, Detention and the Art of the Self-Aware Horror Movie [No Spoilers]

The first rule of The Cabin in the Woods is that you do not talk about The Cabin in the Woods. Okay, that's not entirely accurate. By all means do talk about The Cabin in the Woods in order to lure your various friends, neighbors and countrymen (those that aren't easily squeamish, of course) into the theater to experience the devilishly clever riff on horror movies that co-writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon have concocted here. But for the love of Tyler Durden, don't tell them anything more than the movie's basic premise: a group of kids head to a cabin in the woods where spooky -- and occasionally bloody -- things go down. Period. Full Stop. End of line.

That's really all anyone should know before sitting down to watch The Cabin in the Woods as the movie's various twists and turns are best experienced fresh. However, if your potential fellow ticket-buyers still aren't sold and keep hounding you for a few more details, you can reveal that the cast of characters is made up of all the usual horror archetypes, including the muscle-bound jock (Chris Hemsworth a.k.a. the Mighty Thor), his bubbly blonde girlfriend (Anna Hutchison), the goofy stoner (Fran Kranz), the boring nice guy (Jesse Williams) and, of course, the virginal good girl (Kristen Connolly). But don't proceed further beyond that point because even though their personalities are familiar, what happens to them in that lonely cabin in the woods definitely isn't. Suffice to say, what starts as a typical creature feature eventually balloons to positively apocalyptic proportions.

Whedon, of course, has built his career around witty, thoughtful genre deconstructions, going all the way back to his screenplay for the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, which grew out of his desire to subvert the standard image of a blonde cheerleader being menaced by a supernatural beastie in a dark alley. His most recent series, the short-lived Dollhouse, ventured even further down the metatextual rabbit hole and while the show sometimes fell short of its grand ambitions (largely due to network mismanagement), it was fascinating to watch how far Whedon was willing to push the limits of its premise up to and beyond their breaking point. Because it's only a 90-minute feature, as opposed to a 27-episode series, The Cabin in the Woods is a tighter, more concise bit of pop culture commentary-cum-genre picture. And while the movie ends up going to some pretty wild places, the progression of events feels entirely logical within the reality that Whedon and Goddard establish. The duo never forgets to keep the movie entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis, but they've also clearly written the script with an eye towards inspiring heated post-movie discussions and maybe the odd college term paper or two. Indeed, analyzing Cabin in the Woods after the fact is in some ways more satisfying than actually watching the movie itself.

Interestingly, that may prove to be a sticking point amongst a certain contingent horror fans, who are more interested in a more straight-up gorefest than a grandly meta take on their favorite genre. They aren't necessarily wrong; while Cabin in the Woods is certainly clever, it also carries a faint, but detectable whiff of self-satisfaction over its own cleverness that can be a little off-putting. While Goddard and Whedon try to play the movie both ways -- as a straight horror flick and a feature-length genre analysis -- ultimately, it's more successful as the latter than the former. (Outside of a few moments during the climax, it's never really all that scary, which is a problem for an ostensible horror movie.) There's something to be said for proving you can really play a genre straight before you set about subverting it. Take Wes Craven, who helped launch the horror craze in the '70s and '80s and drew on that background for the first Scream. Or Sam Raimi, who launched his career with his own cabin in the woods chiller The Evil Dead and then essentially remade it as a gonzo comedy a few years later with Evil Dead 2. Based on The Cabin in the Woods, it's not clear that Whedon and Goddard would be capable of making a truly great traditional horror movie. They're students of the form -- not masters. Fortunately for them, they happen to be exceptionally smart and savvy students, whose enthusiasm and sheer bravado would charm even the most hard-hearted horror movie professor.

If The Cabin in the Woods is a master's thesis about horror movies, Joseph Kahn's Detention is more like a series of doodles in the margins of a college blue book. Like Cabin, it's a film where anything can happen and frequently does, but Kahn doesn't concern himself with things like narrative consistency and clever metaphors. In its own way though, this as much of a meta commentary on the state of the genre -- not to mention contemporary teen culture -- as Whedon and Goddard's more serious-minded approach. As visually hyperkinetic as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, as self-aware as an episode of Community and as ridiculous as a MAD Magazine spoof, Detention aggressively races from scene to scene, chasing after laughs first and logic second.

To be honest, that aggressiveness is deeply irritating at first. It would be understandable if some viewers jumped ship within the first twenty minutes, annoyed by the movie's shrill comic tone and obnoxious teen characters, including sarcastic loser Riley (Shanely Caswell), her '90s-obssessed blonde BFF-turned-frenemy Ione (Spencer Locke) and the mutual object of affection, dreamy skater Clapton (Josh Hutcherson). These three kids reside in the boring suburb of Grizzly Lake, where they attend what can only be described as the worst high school on Earth. (That Dane Cook is the principal of the place tells you all you need to know.) In between dealing with their love triangle and obsessing over prom, Riley, Ione and Clapton have to contend with a serial killer that seems to be targeting them and their classmates. Things only get wilder when the trio is forced to report for Saturday detention, where they discover that learning the identity of the murderer will involve, among other things, a spurned would-be prom date, a scheme to rewrite history and a giant stuffed bear that doubles as a time machine.

Once you get past the movie's rough beginnings and adjust to its goofy spirit and episodic randomness, Detention becomes a good deal of fun. Kahn -- who previously directed the similarly over-the-top racing movie Torque, which gets name-checked here -- merrily breaks the fourth wall over and over again and sends up a diverse catalog of movies, ranging from Prom Night to The Fly to Donnie Darko. (The Darko gags are particularly hilarious, especially when time travel enters the picture.) Again, like Cabin in the Woods, Detention isn't especially scary, but it's also not really trying to be. If Kahn is after anything deeper (and I think he is, to a certain extent), it's to highlight how the extreme self-awareness of today's teenagers, not to mention post-Scream horror movies, has made it impossible for them to experience genuine fear. Furthermore, the movie's fractured narrative mimics the steady stream of distractions that modern technology (smartphones, Facebook etc. etc.) offers young people -- it's the cinematic equivalent of reading a book on your Kindle while taking your turn in an online RPG and watching a Funny or Die skit on your iPhone. (It's especially impressive then, that despite all of its digressions and tangents, Detention still finds a way to tie everything -- well, almost everything -- together in the end.) Taken together, both The Cabin in the Woods and Detention suggest that the horror genre in its current form is rapidly approaching its end of days. So what comes next? That'll be up to the new generation of horror filmmakers who grow up watching movies like these.

Once you've seen The Cabin in the Woods, click here to read our spoiler-filled review.

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