Jul 28, 2014
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This Week at the Movies

"The Cabin in the Woods" is a clever send-up of horror movie tropes, but "Damsels in Distress" does not blend genres as successfully.

This Week at the Movies

You may never watch a horror movie the same way again after seeing “The Cabin in the Woods,” a clever genre hybrid written by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon and protégé Drew Goddard, who also directed the picture.

This film is difficult to describe without giving away a myriad of spoilers. So, let’s suffice it to say that there are two storylines taking place simultaneously.

In story one, a group of college kids – a jock (Chris Hemsworth, of "Thor"), his promiscuous girlfriend, a “good girl,” a stoner (scene stealer Fran Kranz) and a quiet, studious young man – heads off to party in the secluded titular locale. In the second, a group of office drones (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) prepare to launch some sort of top-secret project.

Let’s skip any further discussion on that second plotline and concentrate on the first. Not since the original “Scream” has a horror film toyed with our expectations of this genre.

Although something seems off as the film’s pretty young things make their way to the woods, the scenario is generically familiar.

Despite an ominous warning from a crazed redneck at a broken down gas station, the group continues on to the cabin.

It’s not long before they find themselves in a basement that resembles a prop shop for the horror film industry. They pry open an old diary and – against all good judgment – read a few lines in Latin, which then resurrects a family of zombies.

In good conscience, I cannot describe the picture any further, other than to say that where the characters end up at the film’s finale is a long way from where they began.

While “Cabin” is not particularly frightening, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and devilishly clever.

I’ve read that despite raves from critics, audiences are not responding as favorably to the film. This comes as no surprise.

One of the questions this movie – and, to an extent, "The Hunger Games” - poses is why audiences flock to see young, attractive people ritualistically slaughtered. Does watching other people’s pain and misery provide a catharsis? And why are characters who explore their sexuality punished during these types of films, while the chaste are always the last ones standing?

The final 20 minutes of “Cabin” are among the most inventive and, frankly, demented I’ve seen in any recent horror picture.

Moviegoers who like their horror films with more on the brain than the usual slicing and dicing will not want to miss this one.

This week’s other cinematic selection also plays with the notion of genre, but to a less successful extent.

“Damsels in Distress” is the first film from director Whit Stillman in 14 years. The filmmaker broke onto the independent scene in 1990 with “Metropolitan,” which followed the adventures of a group of well-to-do Manhattanites during the gala debutante season.

His follow-ups “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco” were also acclaimed.

“Damsels” is also set in the milieu of wealthy children who attend the imaginary Seven Oaks College. A group of four girls – led by Violet (Greta Gerwig) – have made it their aim to lead their fellow students away from depression through various means, such as teaching tap dancing lessons or dating young men who have not reached their full potential.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is the newest member of the group. Trouble begins brewing among the young women when they begin to share interests in several of the film’s young men, including the doofus Frank (Ryan Metcalf) and the mysterious Fred (Adam Brody).

The good news is that “Damsels” shares the witty banter and breezy pacing of Stillman’s previous work.

Unfortunately, something seems missing here. It’s not a bad film by any means, but the combination of genres – romantic comedy and the musical, complete with a song and dance number – with some of the story’s kookier elements, such as Violet’s attempts to start an international dance craze and raise the spirits of the college’s student body through the application of a nicely scented soap, often give the picture a twee vibe.

It’s nice to see Stillman back in action after such a long hiatus, but I’m hoping his next effort will feel more focused as his earlier work did.

"The Cabin in the Woods" is playing at Douglaston's Movie World. "Damsels in Distress" is screening at Manhattan's Sunshine Cinema.

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