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Creature Features in Review: Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Wes Craven’s 1994 New Nightmare was a movie ahead of its times. In that I mean, the way the story was told, the significance of something we make-believe into being real (knowing it is actually fictional) and having it given back to us as this make-believe thing made real by our own imagination. That was kind of the genius of Craven’s New Nightmare. Freddy wasn’t real, but we pretended he was, as we do with all characters we watch on the big screen, small screen, or even in print, and yes even the horrorish ones. New Nightmare played on that, trapping the imaginative character Freddy in the make-believe world until the “movies” ended and thus releasing the bonds that kept imagination captive. Suddenly Freddy is real because WE made him real. Very clever, if you sit for a spell and think about it. Unfortunately, much like Jason Goes to Hell, audiences, and fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street series were expecting…well…what they have been accustomed to and not this metaphysical metaphor of fantasy meets reality through a sort of cognitive mythological construct. Not all movies fall prey to being ahead of their time. Take 2011’s Cabin in the Woods as a perfect example of the right kind of out of the box thinking movie coming out at the right moment in our social environment, which is to say at the very least uncertain.

Cabin in the Woods

By: Jeremy Flagg

I was raised on 80’s slasher films. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween filled my nights, and as an adolescent, they may have altered my childhood. However, these classic horror films provided ample education. I learned at an early age, you never separate from your friends, you never skinny dip, you never get drunk, and by all means, never lose your virginity in a sketchy locale. While a multitude of movies have attempted to recreate these classic tactics of terror, few have ever lived up to the original.

In walk Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard with Cabin in the Woods.

Horror movies have a recipe. With an ample suspension of disbelief, a movie builds tension, redirects our fear, and then in a moment of complacency, it scares. This recipe is repeated with variation for a little over an hour and somehow, at the end, our “final girl” perseveres by eliminating the big bad. We are put again into suspense as the credits end and claws emerge, or a hand rises from the grave, or a mask is picked up. There is a formula we’ve grown comfortable with, when it is tampered with, we get uneasy. However, Cabin in the Woods examines this formula, uses it, stomps on it, laughs at it, uses it again, and at the end, we’re left blinking in an entertained disbelief.

It starts with scientists talking about child safety cabinets and how only they and Japan remain viable options. What? Isn’t Cabin in the Woods a movie about a group of people going on a mini vacation to a vacant cabin in the middle of the, well, woods? Cue title scene and then onto the movie we expect.  A fun flirty vibe, filled with sunshine, dreams and the need for relaxation. We have all the expected character tropes necessary to make a mediocre horror film; the jock, the overachiever, the stoner, the sexy girl and the kind of nice guy who we instantly forget is in the movie. Everything about this post screams “middle of the road.” Or does it?

True to form, we’re ten minutes into the film and the group of soon to be killed young adults have met the old man who gives foreboding advice. However, in every scene, we see a hint of something. A man following them reports to his superiors. The old man makes a phone call asking for approval. A flying eagle crashes into an unseen wall. A room in the cabin holds a one-way mirror. There is a horror movie laid on top of something, perhaps a conspiracy? We’re barely into the movie and we already know we’re being played with and it’s not being subtle. Are we seeing hints of a twist? It must be a twist because goodness knows every movie has to have an obnoxious twist at the end. That’s how horror is done.

As the screen zooms out, we realize the scientists are watching the five young adults. Wait, that’s not how horror goes? These goons are watching them, luring them into this horrific situation. Lowering inhibitions with chemicals and increasing their libido, we have no idea to what end, but we know they’re setting them up for disaster. It’s only made more comical as they take bets on how the group will die. We have no idea why this is happening, but we know that the scientists can only lead them to a dangerous situation. The group must begin the catalyst that will set them up for death.

Now let’s recap, cause from here on out something serious changes in this movie. We know it’s a horror movie. We know the scientists are setting the scene for this horror movie. We know death is coming, but we’re still not entirely sure why. As they are led to the basement where a variety of talismans and treasures are stored, we discover they will choose their fate. Zombie redneck tortured family. Meanwhile, a similar fate is befalling a group of Japanese school children, a scenario competing with our movie for victims.

The movie adds a new element, horror movie as a spectator sport. However, the darker, and even more genius aspect is that we, the viewer are part of the movie. Much like the scientists watching their hidden cameras, we are rooting for the body count to begin. As danger looms on the horizon, we are hoping for a massacre. We want those partaking in dangerous activities such as drinking, drugs, or sex to fall victim to the classic horror deaths. And when the sex kitten is about to pull off her blouse, we want her to die. Then she resists and plays coy and we, along with a room full of watching spectators groan. Then science jumps in, releasing a pheromone mist.

Wait, does this potentially explain why in every horror movie stupid stuff happens? Were deranged scientists aiding Jason and those campers were all just victims of a mastermind game player? Did chemicals being pumped into the bedrooms of teenagers bring on Freddy as a hallucination? I’m left pondering if everything I’ve been told is a lie. But wait, I’ll worry about that later, because redneck zombies are about to start killing people. Did I just cheer? Maybe.

!!! Spoilers Below !!!

As redneck pain-loving zombies achieve their first kill (a girl about to get her groove on) we’re introduced to a new piece of the puzzle. Somehow, the scientists are culling the blood of the victims in some sort of ceremonial effort. Our next clue comes from the drug-addled hippy that is so used to altering his mind, the chemicals created by the scientists do little to affect him. Cue more classic death scenes, often times paired with comedic lines from the viewers in the bunker of scientists. When the victims refuse to split up, scientists manipulate the scene forcing the classic tropes to align to their 80’s horror counterpart.

Cabin in the Wood teaches us that a healthy addiction to Weed can save us in a horror movie.

The movie gets, even more, meta as the remaining two survivors find themselves in an elevator going down into the bunker hidden beneath the cabin. Locked in cages, we see a variety of classic horror monsters. Werewolves, giant bat things, even a unicorn are kept in cages, waiting to be called upon to slay the innocent. As the fool, our high-as-a-kite unlikely hero and the virgin unleash havoc on the underground bunker, releasing hordes of b-rate horror atrocities, we find ourselves cheering on the death yet again. We’re not quite right in the head.

As the final showdown begins, we’re not given a Final Girl showdown of immense proportions. Sigourney Weaver says that if the heroes live, they will destroy the world. The heroes, the ones we’ve been rooting for, either die, or we all die. I’m not sure if I’m annoyed or I commend them as they decide to live, thereby destroying the world. But, you know, it happens.

The snappy dialogue mixed with this meta look at horror creates something entirely new to the genre. We find ourselves cheering on the heroes, only to condemn them, and wanting more mayhem. We learn quickly that we, the viewers of this disaster, are really quite twisted. Most of all, we’re really excited that we got to watch a unicorn slaughter a man. At the start of the review, you had no idea a unicorn would be whom we cheered on. Cause you know, it’s a horror movie.

Jeremy Flagg is no stranger to Machine Mean, having reviewed for us Final Girls during our Freight Fest series, he also is the author of the CHILDREN OF NOSTRADAMUS dystopian science fiction series and SUBURBAN ZOMBIE HIGH young adult humor/horror series. Taking his love of pop culture and comic books, he focuses on fast paced, action packed novels with complex characters and contemporary themes. For more information about Jeremy, visit www.remyflagg.com.

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Double Feature Review: Get Out/ The Belko Experiment

I don’t think I’ve seen so many new horrors as I have this year. AND IT’S ONLY MARCH!!! I’m not going to list off all of them, as at this time in the morning hours with only one cup of coffee to keep my brain functioning, cannot recall. Though some honorable mentions are due. XX, a 4 film horror anthology directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusama, was a stellar performance, despite some notes falling flat. Another one that was actually listed as a 2016 movie, but I saw in January, so it counts on my list for this year, and that flick was Split…which split critics while still bringing in rather respectable ratings from audiences, not just because it released (late Dec?) in January (the month movies go to die), but also because it was a return of sorts for M. Night Shyamalan. This last movie brings up a point that I’d like to address. Maybe I haven’t really been paying close enough attention, but when did Blumhouse start producing good horror movies? And back to back, mind you. As per our double feature review here of Get Out and The Belko Experiment (more on those to follow), add in Split, and that’s two out of three money making horror movies for the apparently expanding horror flick producer. No complaints here. Blumhouse’s wheelhouse has added a sort of balance for me and my comic book movie obsession. So…lets get into this and take a look at two horror flicks, both of which I had the pleasure of screening on back to back weekends.

Let’s kick things off with The Belko Experiment.

Produced by, you guessed it, Blumhouse, directed by Greg McLean. From IMDb, “In a twisted social experiment, 80 Americans are locked in their high-rise corporate office in Bogotá, Colombia and ordered by an unknown voice coming from the company’s intercom system to participate in a deadly game of kill or be killed.” I think it’s important to note that the screenplay was written by Guardian of the Galaxy director James Gunn who was originally asked to direct this movie but decided to step back for personal reasons. This was the most recent horror flick I’d gone to theaters to see, mostly out of having some free time come up and why not, right. I had a good feeling the theater would be empty and it pretty much was. Not for lack of trying for the producers. I’d seen a share number of advertisements both on the radio and on TV. And judging by said previews, the plot wasn’t hard to decipher. This wasn’t one of those kinds of movies. Here, there was no twist ending, and if the ending was supposed to be one, well…sorry buddy, I believe Joss Whedon already pulled it off in Cabin in the Woods. Not to get spoilerly here, as this is still showing in theaters. But you’ll get it when you see it, a very Cabin in the Woods kinda vibe. And that’s also not to say that Th Belko Experiment was bad. I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t have to think too much. It was a dark humorous action thriller with plenty of gore to please most horror fans. There were a few aahhs and ohhs from the audience when someone’s face got split in two with an ax, or when someone who’d been doing all the right things in a horror movie suddenly without much warning gets killed.   

That can kinda sum up The Belko Experiment. A boiling pot of other movies and mixtures such as Office Space meets Battle Royal meeting Cabin in the Woods. People who came looking for a mystery to solve probably left feeling disappointed, as it seems many other movie critics and audiences had, given the poor showing on Rotten Tomatoes or how it was pretty much cast into the back of the theater on opening day. Hell, the theater I normally go had stopped showing it, forcing me to drive an extra five miles to the next theater. Bastards! For me, I knew before the movie started what it was going to be. I knew there’d be one or no survivors. I came for the nihilistic violence and nihilistic violence is what I got. The Belko Experiment wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. The story seemed to falter against the easy to predict concept of the film. Too much attention was given to certain officer works battling internally over the dilemma of their humanity. I think if producers and director had turned the volume up on the violence, making it a sort of hyper-violent nihilistic movie, it would have been a shade better.

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Now…how about we Get Out.

It’s been two weeks since I saw Get Out. And while the movie had been out for at least a week if not more before I journeyed to the theater, if there were any doubts as to its popularity, let me say…my theater was not empty. Not at all. I’m rather certain it was plum full. The same happened to me when I saw Split. Packed theater. And for a horror movie no less, whether you liked the movie or not, should make you a little optimistic about the future of the genre, if you’re a genre fan, that is. Get Out was directed and written by comedian Jordan Peele (from Key & Peele and Wanderlust fame). And this was Peeles first go at directing, or directing a horror flick at the least. I can say without question that I wish upon a star that he returns to the director’s chair for another romp. For those who do not know, Get Out is about “a young African-American man who visits his Caucasian girlfriend’s mysterious family estate.” And that’s pretty much all you need to know. The plot is rather simple, actually. But the twist…oh my, it is almost too good.

Don’t worry. No spoilers here. I’d wouldn’t do that to you. But let me say for those who were told or believe that Get Out is an anti-white movie, you are DEAD WRONG. They (or you) couldn’t be furthest from the truth. In fact, I’d say this movie pokes more fun at white liberals than staunch racists. Racism is there, you can’t avoid it, just as you cannot avoid it in everyday life. But the real gem of this movie is the natural way it highlights the awkwardness between African Americans and Caucasian Americans. The scenes dealing with this phenomena are quite brilliant. And there are layers are weirdness that can only be described as such. And there are scenes that make little sense and/or do not add to the quality of the movie, nor do they take anything away. They’re kinda just….well…there. I’m assuming Peele’s way of appealing to traditional horror flick fans.

Also, don’t be fooled by those espresso hipsters, those fascist wannabes who think they know everything. Get Out is a horror movie in every definition. Just as there are multiple ways of horrifying audiences, when Get Out pulled out its heart-stopping end, I was truly terrified. When I allow myself to be put in his shoes and those who came before him, well…it kinda reminded me of some terrifyingly strange classic sci-fi flicks from the late 50s and 60s, with perhaps a touch of H.P. Lovecraft. Not to show my hand or anything, I’m trying not to spoil as the movie is still showing in theaters. You really do need to see this for yourself. Trust me. I had the assumption of what was going on and when I found out I was wrong, I was very surprisingly pleased. And it’s one of those surprise endings that make you think back over the course of the movie, and when you do, you’ll nod your head and say, “Oh, that’s why…” etc. etc. Get Out is by far my favorite horror movie of the year, thus far.

My rating: 5 of 5

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, and his newest release, The Hobbsburg Horror. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange events by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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The Evil Dead: a 34 year review

samraimiandbrucecampbell

Before we walk through the woods and enter the cabin, I’d like to take a moment and recognize Sam Raimi. Today is his birthday. Born this day in 1959, Sam has held a distinguished career. He’s directed numerous horror pictures adored by many twisted people and non-twisted people alike, worldwide. He’s got a fan base reaching from the dark Necronomicon fueled world of Evil Dead (1981) all the way past Darkman (1990) into the comic book world of Spider-man (which is still considered by many as the best film adaption to date). He’s even directed a little known western called, The Quick and the Dead (1995). He’s dabbled in television, and I’m not just talking about the highly anticipated return of everyone’s favorite chainsaw welding sassy hero in Ash Vs. The Evil Dead (2015), but also the short lived 90s shows, M.A.N.T.I.S and Legend of the Seeker. And he has also produced some amazing and totally underrated horror flicks, including both 30 Days of Night (2007) and The Possession (2012). And this is just a tip of the iceberg. Sam Raimi, in my humble opinion, is an amazing storyteller, not without his faults. His vision has a unique blend of terror and comedy that is often precarious to mix. Many couldn’t quite jive with his return to form with Drag Me to Hell (2009) with its strange formula of laughs and jolts of absolute fear…well, all but the true die hard fans. I actually loved Drag Me to Hell. It was wonderfully sadistic! In celebrating the macabre directors birthday, I thought it was high-time I reviewed his most legendary and longest lasting cult film, The Evil Dead (1981).

Longest lasting cult classic…? What does even mean? More to point, longest lasting, as in a franchise property in which is still being watched, talked about, and continued, to date. Sam’s Spider-man days are over. There are no more westerns. No more trips to hell. No more over the top 90s television action. No more blown apart scientists with one heck of an anger management problem. His one true lasting cult creation, is Ash and those demon bastards in The Evil Dead. I’m sure you’re thinking, “What a sec? Wasn’t there a remake of Evil Dead?” And though this as nothing to do with our discussion, I do have this to say, there was and there wasn’t. Confused? Good!

We can debate this all day long, and I’ve been in a few conversations on social media about this subject, but in my opinion, Evil Dead (2013) was not a remake or reboot. It was simply another “cabin in the woods, kids find Necronomicon” movie. The 2013 misadventure kept to the familiar themes of the original while maintaining its own story arch and more gritty vibe. To me, that spells continuity, the continuation of the “Evil Dead” mythology through a new cast of characters. Hell, it was even rumored (and still is) that Ash will team up with Mia in some future (probably never going to happen) film. How could they team up if Mia’s story was a reboot of the original? They couldn’t, simple enough. Thus, Evil Dead (2013) was not a reboot of The Evil Dead (1981).  It would be easier to argue The Evil Dead 2 as a reboot of the first film then it would the 2013 film. Just saying…stop arguing with me!!!

Again…I’m getting really far off topic here. Can we talk about just The Evil Dead (1981) for a moment?

Okay then!

evildeadposter

The Evil Dead first released to theaters in October 1981. It was a low budget film with a no name cast of teenaged-twenty-somethings, shot on 16mm film in the woods of Tennessee for around $350,000. Though not the first “cabin in the woods” horror movie, you could probably give that credit to either Equinox (1970) or The Red House (1947), but you could make a strong argument that The Evil Dead solidified “the cabin” as a pop trope in horror stories.  The plot is easy to follow. A group of friends head out to a lonely cabin in the woods for a little R&R. The place is dilapidated, albeit cozy.  Its a celebration of friendship and perhaps even a little romance, despite the third wheel. But there’s a eerie presence in the cabin. Strange sounds in the cellar. The boys investigate and discover a nasty looking book and a tape recorder, among other things (including a poster of The Hills Have Eyes on the wall). They play the recording and the archaeologist on the tape recites some of the words he’d translated from the Necronomicon. His incantation awakens something dark and demonic in the forest surrounding the cabin. One by one, Ash (Bruce Campbell) watches his friends get possessed. Before daybreak, he must find a way to survive…or meet the same fate as his friends.

The Evil Dead captures, for me, the potential for horror. I’m talking more in film probably then storytelling, though in storytelling itself you cannot find a more perfect and basic trope to work with than the “cabin in the woods.” As for film, though, The Evil Dead demonstrates the power of low-budget horror with a list of no-name actors but over-the-top effects. I guess today we’d call these indie films, or independent to be frank. Horror, in its long life, seems to have thrived better as independent and low-budgeted. Directors and cast members and producers have to rely on cost effective means, focusing on mood and tension, and maximizing production budgets as much as humanly, sanely possible. And when it comes to horror, such as this film, at a glance they’d need to used more of the budget on practical effects than anything else. The effects for me are what count. Good storytelling, that’s a given. But you’re trying to sale me on horror, you gotta bring the practical gore.

Some might say the effects in The Evil Dead look cheesy, and maybe some parts do nowadays. But in my book, given the budget restraints, The Evil Dead looked and still looks amazingly graphic. Shaky steady-cam and all the buckets of blood. A fantastic wonderland of dark imagery and terror and perhaps even a little humor.

The story isn’t complicated and that’s a good thing. It is friendship and love pitted against the fear of the unknown, the evil taking possession of those closest to us. Not every horror story needs to have some complex AHS plot. Add the practical gore with the simple story, and that’ll give you one hell of an entertaining need to watch movie.

My Rating: 5/5