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The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

by Steve Habrat

To say that you have no idea what you are in for in The Cabin in the Woods is a complete understatement. You can’t even fathom the twist that is waiting to be sprung on you half way through this monster of a horror movie. That, my friends, is something you need to be excited about. I’ve said it multiple times, horror has hit rock bottom, from countless remakes, sequels, and retreads, leaving us only a handful of notable films to celebrate. It is truly hard to believe that there is such a shocking lack of vision and creativity working in Hollywood. I can’t believe they are paid millions to repackage and resell recycled garbage that we have already seen before and much better at that. The Cabin in the Woods lays waste to that approach; at first giving us the same weary old setup and then suddenly launching a shock and awe campaign that you will be truly unprepared for. It’s the first real crowd pleaser horror movie to come around in a long time, one that demands you see it in a packed house with tons of other unsuspecting viewers. You will be in for one wild night at the movies.

The Cabin in the Woods follows five college students, virgin Dana (Played by Kristen Connolly), slutty Jules (Played by Anna Hutchison), athletic Curt (Played by Chris Hemsworth), polite Holden (Played by Jesse Williams), and stoner Marty (Played by Fran Kranz), who head to an isolated cabin in the woods for a weekend of debauchery. After exploring the eerie basement, the group finds a worn out diary that they proceed to read from, conjuring up a bloodthirsty force in the woods that slowly descends upon the cabin. Meanwhile, a strange organization watches the kids from hidden cameras placed strategically around the cabin. It turns out that this organization has an agenda all their own and they are hiding a horrifying secret that threatens the world.

Considered a “loving hate letter” to horror by its director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods adoringly tips its hat to the classics every chance it gets. Keep an eye out for a hilarious nod to Evil Dead II, a siege on the cabin that is evocative of Night of the Living Dead, and a sequence that would have felt right at home in the calmer moments of the original Friday the 13th. It also helps that the early premise is loosely based on the original 1981 The Evil Dead.  When the twist is revealed, The Cabin in the Woods evolves into a new breed of horror movie that embraces every single subgenre you can possibly think of. I hesitate to say anymore about it other than it does go for broke and it comes up a winner because of it. Fans of the genre will be left beside themselves and at times it was almost overload, so much to take in that you will be flirting with heading back to the theater to experience it again. It’s absolutely exhilarating.

The Cabin in the Woods does have a talented cast behind the wheel, not a weak link in the bunch and then springing a surprise guest on us in the final moments. I loved Chris Hemsworth as the jock Curt, the overly confident hero who uses his strength in some of the most hysterical ways possible. Wait for the scene where he comes face to face with a zombie girl. Fran Kranz also shines as the squinty-eyed stoner Marty who begins to suspect there is more going on than meets the eye. And then we have Richard Jenkins as Steve Hadley and Bradley Whitford as Richard Sitterson, who are members of the mysterious organization who steal every scene they are in. A good majority of the laughs come from their end, especially in a gambling sequence and in their deadpan observations while they watch the kids.

My one minor complaint with The Cabin in the Woods is that I wished it had been scarier than it turned out to be. Sure, it is loaded with jump scares that will have the easy targets filling the jeans, but I wish it had really freaked me out. The audience I saw the film with had a ball with the fake out scares, gasping every time that music blasted over the speakers. I did enjoy the campy melody that The Cabin in the Woods carries, right down to the self-aware chucklers like “We should split up!” In fact, the film is often times more of a comedy than it is a horror movie, but I think that is precisely the point of The Cabin in the Woods. Nothing really scares us anymore, never sending us home from the theater with a handful of sleepless nights. The Cabin in the Woods points out that horror isn’t just failing in America, but is crumbling all over the world, and simply not doing the job that it is responsible for.

The Cabin in the Woods turns out to be a blood soaked, anything goes party that takes absolutely no prisoners. It opts to wipe all the prisoners it could take off the map and then firebomb the map. As an evaluation of the sorry state of horror, it is spot on and leaves you itching to see more horror films like it. In a way it gives horror fans hope, that there is still some individuals out there in the industry who posses creativity and will take a few risks. It baffles me why the film has been shelved for so long and why the studio was so iffy about it. Well written, directed, acted, and featuring the mother of all horror movie finales, The Cabin in the Woods is an adrenaline shot jabbed right into the feeble heart of the horror genre.

Grade: A

Drag Me To Hell (2009)

by Steve Habrat

If Sam Raimi failed to properly mesh campy humor with horror in Evil Dead II, he more than gets it right with 2009’s superb horror outing Drag Me To Hell. It was nice to see Raimi return to horror, a genre he happens to do quite well, after his trio of big budget Spider-Man films that seemed to be wearing out by the third installment. Scaled back and armed with a smaller scope, Raimi’s return to the genre is triumphant, as he makes a film that is bursting with sheer terror all while retaining an old school aura. It helps that he uses the Universal Studios logo from the 1980’s and uses a retro looking Ghost House logo to begin the whole experience. Then, Raimi dives head first into a bottomless pit of body fluids and demonic torture, filling his frames with tributes to his Evil Dead series and putting his star Allison Lohman through a truly arduous experience that had to have left her covered from head to toe in bruises. I can only imagine what the stunt double looked like after the shoot was complete.

Drag Me To Hell introduces us to bank loan officer Christine Brown (Played by Allison Lohman), a sweet girl who seems to have everything going for her. She is up for a promotion at work, favored by her boss Jim Jacks (Played by David Paymer), and is in a relationship with successful young professor Clay Dalton (Played by Justin Long), who also happens to come from money. It doesn’t appear that Christine has a nasty bone in her body until she has to put up with her competition at work, the kiss-ass Stu Rubin (Played by Reggie Lee), who is also trying to snag the coveted promotion that Christine so desperately wants. That nasty bone also pops up when an elderly woman named Sylvia Ganush (Played by Lorna Raver) shows up at her desk hacking phlegm into a handkerchief and begging for a third extension on her mortgage payments. To prove herself worthy for the promotion, Christine denies Sylvia another extension, meaning that Sylvia will loose her home. Sylvia unleashes a violent attack on Christine and then proceeds to put the curse of the Lamia on Christine, meaning she will be ferociously tormented for three days by a demonic force and on the third day will be drug to the fiery depths of Hell.

After the sweeping Hollywood productions that were the Spider-Man films, Raimi once again seems back at home with a smaller film. Drag Me To Hell is filled with techniques that he applied so skillfully in 1981’s The Evil Dead. Raimi resorts to his old restrained moments that are broken by tantrums of horror that are maxed out. Every demonic attack in Drag Me To Hell is presented as a grand finale, making the audience ask, “What can Raimi possible do to this poor girl by the end?” It turns out, quite a lot, and you better believe he comes armed with a final second twist that is wickedly delicious. It’s also quite coincidental that Raimi sets his sights to demonic haunting and loose possession after swinging around New York with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He terrorizes Christine much like he did Ash in The Evil Dead, Christine always by herself when the Lamia lashes out against her, usually resulting in Christine being knock around a room or terrorized by guttural growls and clanking, mocking inanimate objects. I don’t want to ruin all the fun in spotting all the references to The Evil Dead in Drag Me To Hell, but during a sequence where Christine enters a shed in her backyard, keep an eye out for a very cool nod to his masterpiece.

Much like Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead, Allison Lohman is up for the beating that Raimi dishes out, making her a worthy successor to Ash. Christine retains the glowing persona that Ash had at the beginning of both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, a seemingly sincere person who is always trying to do the right thing. Yet when she cuts someone down to get ahead, she faces forces beyond her comprehension. She barely stands a chance to overcome the relentless Lamia. It helps that with a B-movie premise such as this; the actors are all game to approach the material on the material’s terms. No one here is going for Oscar gold, which actually makes everything more fun than it already is. Long is having a blast as a concerned boyfriend who is skeptical of everything happening to Christine. Raver’s Sylvia is sublimely hellish, popping up like a rotten jack-in-the-box to rip out a handful of Christine’s blonde hair. Lee is hysterical as the kiss-ass Stu and I would have loved to see more of him. Paymer plays his role straight, a bit left out of the schlocky events, although he does get a good one-liner when he is showered with blood spraying from Christine’s nose. Dileep Rao shows up as an overly mysterious fortune teller and Adriana Barraza shows up as a damaged medium that does battle with the wicked beast that is the Lamia, a sequence that is the standout of a film that is packed from beginning to end with standout moments.

A smart burst of nostalgia from a man that helped shape the horror genre way back in 1981, establishing himself as a low budget master of horror, Drag Me To Hell is bursting with moments that will have you chewing your fingernails clean off. He crams his frames with deranged special effects that are both unspeakable and merrily creepy. It was also nice to see Raimi trade his gallons of blood and guts in for gallons of pus, vomit, and phlegm, all which are sprayed manically on the audience. Drag Me To Hell is truly awesome because Raimi finally understands how to mix black humor with drippy horror, making the moments that he wants to be creepy sequences that reduce us to quivering piles of flesh and bone. It’s evenly balanced unlike the slapstick heavy Evil Dead II, which was more concerned with the chuckles rather than the teeth chattering. Of all the recent horror films that are either comatose remakes or uninspired garbage, Drag Me To Hell ranks as one of the best horror films of recent years, wetting our appetite for more horror from Raimi, a living legend. Sometimes it takes a living legend to show these new kids how it is done and Drag Me To Hell schools the new school of horror.

Grade: A-

Drag Me To Hell is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Evil Dead (1981)

by Steve Habrat

As far as low budget film projects go, Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead is wildly successful with stirring up some hair-raising creatures from Hell with not much at all. I’ll never forget seeing The Evil Dead for the first time in my basement with one of my childhood pals. He came over to hang out for the afternoon and he brought with him The Evil Dead, a film he had just recently seen for the first time and that he was just dying for me to see. I had heard more talk about The Evil Dead II and that it was the best in Raimi’s Evil Dead series, acting as the most terrifying out of all his installments. To this day, I will never forget watching The Evil Dead for the first time. It scared the hell out of me in broad daylight. I went on to see The Evil Dead II several years later, and I have to say I am in the camp that believes that Raimi’s original is the best in the series. Not only does it impress me that he accomplished so much with so little, but I prefer the film’s solemn approach to the slapstick comic approach he used in the second film. Shot on the fuzzy 16mm format with only 150,000 smackaroos, The Evil Dead stands tall on its no-nonsense premise and plunking our hero Ash in the horror all by himself. Talk about a nail biter.

The Evil Dead follows five Michigan State students, Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell), Linda (Played by Betsy Baker), Scotty (Played by Richard DeManincor), Shelly (Played by Theresa Tilly), and Cheryl (Played by Ellen Sandweiss) who are traveling to a secluded cabin for a weekend of fun. When they arrive at the cabin, they begin exploring the chilly basement and stumble upon The Book of the Dead and a companion tape of readings from the book. The group plays the recordings for a little harmless fun, unknowingly unleashing a growling, unstoppable force that begins to posses them one by one and turns them into deformed homicidal maniacs. As the group slowly shrinks, Ash finds himself pitted against forces beyond his comprehension and drastically searching for a way to save what is left of his friends.

The Evil Dead is a film that refuses to crack a smile, or perhaps maybe I have never seen it. Many see this film as coated with a thin layer of black humor. I have to disagree, at least when it comes to the original film. The Evil Dead is resourceful with the little it has to work with, relying heavily on the idea that no help is coming and these kids are on their own. Not since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has a horror film genuinely made me feel like the characters are hopelessly doomed to meet a grisly end. Further effective is the way Raimi makes us buy this isolation and sense of being cornered. Raimi careens his camera around the woods at white-knuckle speeds, establishing that there is some form of monstrous force lurking in the thick wall of trees that confine the cabin. What that force is exactly is never fully revealed, Raimi smartly leaving us only horrified reactions for his actors as they flee this force’s wrath. Raimi escalates the horror of this unseen force with ingenious sound mixing, a chorus of angry moaning and demonic growling steamrolling over trees and barreling full force at whoever is standing in front of it.

Much of the anguish of watching The Evil Dead stems from the idea that Ash faces evil all by his lonesome. Raimi understands that when we are by ourselves in the dark, our mind begins to play tricks on us. What was that creak? What is outside lurking in the dark? The Evil Dead relentlessly exposes us to this, slamming the viewer with long, drawn out periods of white noise with the occasional pop. It gives our hero the willies and it will give you at least a few sleepless nights. Raimi presents Ash as an all around good guy with the greatest intentions. He gives Linda a necklace to signify his affection for her, making things all the more gut wrenching when Linda gets possessed. Yet we find ourselves head-over-heels for Ash because he is all we have to grasp to. He has to transform from affectionate/sensitive boyfriend into a macho hero to keep himself alive until dawn.

The brilliance of Raimi’s effort can be found in the way he marries the effect of realism with the sensationalism of watching highly wrought special effects. Raimi effectively manipulates location better than most directors I have seen, using a valid cabin that is the furthest thing from a lavish Hollywood set. He further allows the viewer to get to know every room the cabin has to offer, forcing the viewer to feel as if they are staying the weekend with the kids. This place feels strikingly familiar, like the cabin that belongs to your friend’s parents or your fun uncle. Nothing feels staged with the inside of the cabin. It allows the viewer to feel like they are watching someone’s old home movies that were long forgotten. Raimi fuses this with the idea of sensationalism within motion pictures themselves. When Raimi unleashes his demonic monsters, they are beyond intricate and garish. There is so much going on with their make-up; it is impossible for the viewer to process it all in one sitting. Raimi’s hat trick is revealed when they meet their demise, the ghouls not just dying from a smashed cranium or severed head. Oh no, Raimi goes for overkill, an approach that bombards the viewer visually, showing us entrails leaking out of entrails and pus spewing out more pus. The film is understated and overstated from one second to the next, a stroke of absolute genius that is always hand in hand.

To this day, The Evil Dead still ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen and I seriously doubt it will ever fall of the list. On Halloween 2010, I had the chance to show the film to two friends of mine who had never seen it. I can now understand why my friend brought The Evil Dead over to have me watch all those years ago. It’s a blast to see people’s reactions to it on the first viewing. My friends had the most astonished looks on their faces when the credits rolled, like someone had just walked into their home and punched their beloved kitten. Yet the terror is everlasting in The Evil Dead, even if you have seen it multiple times. It still makes your skin crawl and your stomach do somersaults when Ash braves things by himself. It is a happy marriage of extreme and simple, making a wise choice to keep playing things straight and never allowing us to get too relaxed with it. In my eyes, The Evil Dead is Raimi’s horror masterpiece, one that has been often imitated (Cabin Fever) but can never, ever be duplicated (The Evil Dead II). It remains to this day a titan of the horror genre.

Grade: A+

The Evil Dead is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.