More Terror in the Woods

In what has become a Weird Movie Village tradition, we’re tromping back into the wild for another edition of Terror in the Woods. Past editions can be seen here and here. But unlike the previous versions, we’ve actually got a brand new “woods” movie to talk about.

Yesterday I saw the much buzzed-about and long-shelved Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Joss Whedon and Cloverfield‘s Drew Goddard, and directed by Goddard.

Completed in 2009, Cabin was held up while original distributor MGM debated upconverting it to 3D (which would have been awful), only to go bankrupt, leaving it languishing on the shelf until last year when Lionsgate picked it up. Was it worth the wait? Definitely. Like the Scream series, Cabin can best be described as a “postmodern” horror film. But unlike the Scream series, it’s actually good.

The filmmakers start messing with our expectations right away. From the first frame. we expect to see kids getting stoned while driving down a country road in a VW van, but instead we’re introduced to a couple of lab workers (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) who seem to be involved in some sort of secret surveillance project. They talk about the Japanese and failed experiments, and none of it makes any sense.

Finally, we meet the gang of college students who fit the standard mode established by Friday the 13th and its ilk: The jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slut (Anna Hutchison), the good girl/final girl (Kristen Connolly), the brainiac (Jesse Williams) and the stoner (Fran Kranz). They all jump into the requisite RV and head to a cabin on a lake for a weekend of fun, sex and partying. But as the RV drives away, we see some governmental-looking guy, wearing an earpiece, observing them from a rooftop.

When they arrive at the cabin, things turn strange. Behind a ghastly painting in one of the bedrooms they discover a one-way mirror. And the basement is packed with all sorts of creepy antiques, including an ancient diary from which the good girl starts to read aloud.

Sound familiar? Well, it may remind you of Evil Dead, but (aside from sharing Evil Dead II‘s cinematographer Peter Deming) that’s where the similarity ends. I don’t want to reveal any more because you really should see this film for yourselves. Let’s just say that Whedon and Goddard take the slasher genre, spin it real fast and stab it in the head. And it’s funny, too!

Speaking of revisualizations, I remember being surprised to see old-school advertisements in the L.A. Times for a film called Wrong Turn back in the late spring of 2003. Since it was playing at my neighborhood theater, I figured I’d fork out the price of a matinee ticket. What a delightful surprise! You’d almost have thought it was an undiscovered stalk-and-slasher from the ’70s except that it featured Law & Order‘s Jeremy Sisto, Dexter‘s Desmond Harrington and Whedon favorite Eliza Dukshu.

Produced by the late fx whiz Stan Winston, it also featured wonderful old-fashioned prosthetic effects created by his studio. The plot here is simple: a young man (Harrington) is driving to another city for a job interview and smashes his car into the vehicle of a group of friends whose tires have been mysteriously flattened. They set out to find help, unaware that there’s a bloodthirsty gang of mutant mountain men out to get them.

"You made a really wrong turn, pal!"

That’s it, plotwise. What it does deliver big-time is suspense and gore, and Winston’s mutants are simultaneously repellant and disturbingly deviant. How I wished I’d been able to see it at a drive-in, so perfectly did it capture the ’70s vibe. I could see myself sitting in my car at the Western Drive-In watching Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave...and Wrong Turn. Sheer bliss.

Wrong Turn has spawned a number of direct-to-video sequels, none of which I’ve seen, although fans seem to like Part Two, so I might have to check it — hey, score! It’s on Fox Movie Channel tonight. DVR is set.

Speaking of backwoods mutants, Wes Craven‘s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) cornered the market on  effed-up families. Here, a dysfunctional group of vacationers gets stuck in the desert when their RV breaks down, and a clan of mutant cannibals living in the hills nearby move in for the kill. Okay, it’s not exactly the woods, but it is outside.

In his first film since the shockingly raw Last House on the Left, Craven realized that he needed to keep his fans happy, so he packs the film with gory killings, a rape, immolation and the kidnapping of a baby with intent to consume. It’s based on the legend of the  incestuous Sawney Bean family of Scotland, which was said to have abducted and consumed thousands of travelers over the years. In a modern twist, the Hills cannibals are deformed and mentally perverted as a result of living on an atomic bomb testing site.

I had the poster (seen here) hanging in my room when I was a teen, and Michael Berryman’s face was enough to creep out any visitors. Among the cast of relative unknowns is Dee Wallace, who’d go on to greater glory in such classics as The Howling, E.T. and Cujo. Shot in 16mm, the film is coarse and grainy, which only adds to its sleaze appeal.

In the early days of home video, distributors were hungry for product. Coincidentally, Craven was hungry for cash, so he excreted a dreadful sequel to Hills in 1985 which is basically a remake without blood, suspense or any redeeming values whatsoever, unless you count the fact that this film features a scene with a dog having a flashback. Yep, that actually happens.

Travelers stop to do the Time Warp in Hills 2.

Amazingly, Craven made this travesty just after what is arguably his masterpiece — 1984′s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Of course, he’s always been rather inconsistent. For every Nightmare or Last House, there’s a Shocker…or Music of the Heart…or Scream (if you haven’t already guessed, I hate those things).

Future Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja helmed the remake of the original Hills in 2006, and damned if it isn’t a decent reboot. There’s not much tweaking needed for the story — it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, except it looks great (courtesy of cinematographer Maxime Alexandre) and the effects are eons ahead of the original.

Robert Joy in Aja's remake

And how do you handle the sequel to a good remake of a cult classic? Bring in Craven and his son, Jonathan, to screw it up once again! Maybe they wrote it as a joke since the 1985 sequel was such a disaster. But in that case, shouldn’t it have been sarcastically funny? This one is just ba-a-a-d. And there’s not even a dog having a flashback.

Today’s good news is that the sequel to Marcus Nispel’s horrendous 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is still stalled. Now if we can only get Rob Zombie to stop desecrating the tombs of the classics…

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