Saturday, December 1, 2012

Now Playing in Your Living Room: Headhunters and Cabins


Hollywood—meaning the industry located in Southern California—long ago lost its touch with genre movies, the kind of films at which the system once excelled. Since 1991’s Total Recall, the Big Studio approach to genre films has too often been: “Make ‘em loud, make ‘em confusing, make them unwatchable. Pummel audience in head repeatedly until they crawl out like flattened worms, moaning ‘Just what the hell was that, anyway?’”  

Sometimes these movies are called “rollercoaster thrill rides,” but honestly, that is an insult to amusement parks. Most of today’s Hollywood genre movies are works of brutalism, like a tour of a cramped, windowless, indoor bomb testing facility. (A possible exception is Ben Affleck’s Argo, which I have not seen yet.)

Most of the best genre movies I’m seeing now are from places like Asia and Europe. The skills that American studios have lost—pacing, setting, dialogue, characterization, story—have been absorbed by foreign filmmakers and are coming back to us, maybe in the same way the Beatles took American Rock n’ Roll and sent it back to our shores, new and alive.

For an example, allow me to guide you to the recently released DVD of the exuberant Norwegian thriller Headhunters, which I saw again over Thanksgiving.

One of the current crop of Scandinavian thrillers appearing in novels, movies and on TV, Headhunters is based on a novel by Jo Nesbø (unread by me).

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a corporate headhunter of short stature, large ego, and deep debts. His blond waifishness conceals a venal, cheating heart. To keep himself and his tall, statuesque girlfriend (Synnøve Macody Lund) from sinking into penury, Roger moonlights as a very clever, cunning art thief.

Roger has none of the qualities worshipped by Hollywood screenwriting gurus and marketers: He is short, scrawny, unlikable. He doesn’t even have a cute dog (and just wait ‘til you see what happens to the one dog that does appear)

It’s his side job as an art thief that eventually plunges Roger into waters deep and bloody once handsome, sinister Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, from Game of Thrones) enters the story. Clas is one of those bad boys adored by some women so the minute he appears, he starts kicking sand in poor Roger’s face.

Roger soon becomes a mouse pursued by one mean cat in a grisly, grotesque, and terrifying pursuit, as things take one bad zig after zag. Along the way, our feelings toward him evolve from sniggering contempt toward concern and even, finally, a grudging admiration as this little pig confronts the big bad wolf.

Headhunters is a superbly crafted movie. It starts slowly, weaving and winding up story, setting, and characterization together before it springs loose in a ragged but suspenseful chain of jaw-dropping, hair-raising, occasionally stomach-churning, episodes.

Aksel Hennie holds it all together as the commanding but insecure and self-conscious Roger. Even better, he’s under the cruel serpent gaze of a terrific villain in Coster-Waldau, who plays the equally vile Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. (Coster-Waldau will be a welcome bad guy for years to come.)

Headhunters is beautifully photographed against the sinister emerald shadows of Norwegian forests. It’s superbly edited without being over-edited. Once it gets going, its moves fast, hits hard, without numbing and confusing the viewer. It’s made with enthusiasm and professionalism by all concerned. Director Morten Tyldum and his team have well remembered the lessons of Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, and all the other writers and directors modern Hollywood seems to have forgotten. It’s not just about hitting ‘em hard. It’s hitting ‘em right. Headhunters hits ‘em right.

The plotting, as happens even with the best, has its share of holes, but there’s so much pleasure to be had, you’ll have to watch it twice to see where the holes appear.

Both audiences I saw it with, Americans all, were sporting grins all around at the finish. Hollywood, get a clue.


Cabin in the Woods is a clever, sometimes funny, but unscary movie from Joss Whedon, the creator-producer of the TV hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the movie Marvel’s The Avengers.

The crafty recipe for Cabin takes one part Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, another helping of torture porn, a large of helping of Wes Craven’s Scream series, then add a large dollop of The Matrix. Stuff it all into a piñata, bake, then whack away at it for 95 minutes.

Most of the funny stuff comes from the interplay between Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the two techno-puppeteers responsible for the mayhem, along with some of the antics of reedy-voiced stoner-hero Fran Kranz. More laughs come when Sigourney Weaver shows up at the end.

It’s superbly produced, with live and lively special effects, but it’s so busy with its in-joke, post-modern references, that it wouldn’t scare a baby (or at least failed to scare the infant in me). It never stirs up the basic fear found in the best horror films. Its roots are showing, but they just hang there, separated from the ground of real human emotion.

In an interview on the DVD extra, director Drew Goddard states that he and his crew talked endlessly about how they would visualize the things in life that scared them most. Cabin the Woods packs every one of those fears into its busy 95 minutes. But true fear and real horror remain locked outside, far away in unreachable darkness.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Images from Headhunters and Cabin in The Woods web pages

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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