Review by Justin Goodman
By the third time I’d watched A Cabin in the Woods (not once of my own volition), I began to enjoy its meta-commentary. Joss Whedon, in his zany and bantering way, pointed out how horror movie fans oblige their unethical side when they voluntarily spend up to two hours watching tropes die. Without this, funnily enough, horror movies wouldn’t exist. The movie is basically an extended homage. Eli Morgan Gesner tries something similar in Condemned, his debut film—what would have been his debut, a documentary about skateboarding titled Concrete Jungle, was indefinitely shelved. Only Gesner, trying too hard to make his point, rots the infrastructure.
A dirty, shadowy man monologues in the light of a single bulb and work lamp. He says, “man builds. Think about that. Man builds.” In his room of mannequins, waving a screwdriver around, he claims death can be beaten through it and then man can “take a big hockety spit in God’s face.” Later we’ll know him as Shynola, ‘superintendent’ of the title’s condemned building, but for now he’s simply Shakespearean. Trying to be, anyway. It’s a summation of everything to come, and more effective too. Cut to the ocean, bright, and voices arguing at a beach house, as Maya (Dylan Penn) cries to her bohemian-musician boyfriend Dante (Ronin Rubinstein) about her parents fighting. In dialogue of PS2 video game quality, both Penn and Rubinstein prove they don’t have the Sean Penn’s acting ability. It’s an inauspicious beginning.
She leaves her house in a punk rock fueled stop motion sequence as interesting to see in a feature film, as it is jarring to exist at all. After this brief and meaningless segue, Dante brings Maya to the condemned building he and his band call home. This is when the film tries to stretch like a hyperactive child forced to sit in place. Each floor of the walk-up is a new character: The drug-addled Orthodox Jewish pimp Bigfoot (Jordan Gelber) with his transgender prostitute (Kevin Smith Kirkwood); Cookie (Perry Yung), the resident drug dealer, whose obsession with a Korean pop star comes out during drugged hallucinations; the Nazi BDSM lovers Gault (Johnny Messner) and Murphy (Michael DeMillo). Fitting for a building filled with squatters this atypical, there is little interaction. Instead, while Maya and Dante romance upstairs, the plumbing guides us to the private affairs of each resident.
Were these scenes little more than lazy comedy—Big Foot calls his prostitute a “schmuck” and demands she get him his “treats” that, while drugs, happen to also be fortune cookies (need I say from who?)—the cloistered and exploratory style would have made for something substantial. We are stuck with a reoccurring scene of a fat Spanish man praying to “Jesu Maria” on the toilet. Yet, when Condemned finds a purpose to exist after an empty forty minutes, it finds it in a nonsensical way. Cookie leaves the building and, for reasons I couldn’t discern outside of plot development, padlocks the front door. Weirdly, this leads to one of the truly funny moments of the film. While the disease that will slowly drive every tenant to madness induced homicide begins to spread, Cookie is run over by a police car.
In typical horror film fashion, Maya and Dante fight over her phone when she wants to call the police, breaking it, leading to faux interpersonal drama and their isolation in the slaughterhouse. The melee finally begins. Except, possibly realizing there’d been no real character development up to this point (more than halfway through the movie), the otherwise enjoyable, if not original, chase scenes are broken up by last-minute explication. Big Foot? His close-up adds that he, apparently, struggled with his faith directly into drug addiction. Each revelation, like each character, is short lived, all of it amounting to an attempt to claim moral superiority by confounding stereotypes. They never stop being cardboard cutouts, and the movie’s explanation for the outbreak of violence flattens it out moreso.
Marin (Michael Drayer), Dante’s junkie friend upstairs, is lying on the landing, freshly gutted. Dante’s bandmate, Loki (Honor Titus), walks over excitedly and begins pulling at his intestines. Marin with a pair of decorative antlers fights Loki off and, still alive, packs his intestines inside his waist, backs down the stairs like a feral cat, and repeatedly screams, “this is my shit.” This is the pinnacle of Condemned. Flippancy in unexpected places made A Cabin in the Woods a brilliant homage to the laws of b-horror film. Gesner, applying b-horror logic to a sincere attempt at psychological drama, makes something just better than Trolls 2. Which is to say, bad.
Available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray on January 5th.