Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The USA World Premiere Movie Project: Return to Cabin by the Lake (2001)

This review has been posted in conjunction with the Daily Grindhouse's year long tribute to the USA World Premiere Movie.  

I’m a huge fan of sequels, especially #2’s! I have been known to adore Friday the 13th Part 2, Jaws 2, Halloween 2, and even Expendables 2 at least as much as the originals (and sometimes even more), so after revisiting Cabin by the Lake earlier this month, I was excited to check out its follow-up, Return to Cabin by the Lake, which originally aired about one year after Cabin on August 14th, 2001. I was also surprised that I had a copy taped from the original airing (mostly because I have no memory of doing this), and I instantly wanted to turn in my TV Movie Lover badge™ when I realized that the tape has sat unwatched. For thirteen years! I’m sure that’s not a record, but it is definitely poor form for someone like me. So, the best way to rectify the situation was to gear up the trusty ol’ VCR and take Return to Cabin by the Lake for a spin.

In the sequel Judd Nelson reprises his role as the murderous Stanley Caldwell, and his life story is on its way to becoming Hollywood’s next blockbuster. This new film (titled Cabin by the Lake, of course) is following the screenplay he wrote in the original while also exploring the murderous writer’s potential real/reel life motivations. In short, was he abused as a child or is he just, as one character suggests, “A psycho who got off on chicks' clothes and horticulture?”

Presumed dead, Stanley worms his way onto the set and by assuming different identities he basically kills his way to the top, eventually becoming the director (how’s that for a metaphor). Stanley is drawn to Alison (Dahlia Salem), the screenwriter who’s been brought in to rework his script, and he guides her writing, driving her to really explore Stanley’s darker traits (some of which he doesn’t even understand), as he systematically picks off crew members.

Written by Jeffrey Reddick (Final Destination 1 – 5), Return has all the traits of those early days of meta-horror. It is self-aware, it sarcastically comments on the very industry that created it, and it has a few other nice post-modern touches (for example, the obnoxious 2nd Unit director also has the last name Reddick), but despite a few flashes of inspiration, it lacks the awesome aesthetics and tension of the first film.

The first Cabin was compelling because Stanley’s “final girl,” Mallory (Hedy Burress) is fascinating and strong. She challenges Stanley and questions his motives (which are never truly revealed); she got as much into his head as he got into hers and it created a marvelous tension throughout the second half of the film. Unfortunately, although Alison is not a bad character (and honestly, she is one of the only tolerable people in the entire film), she doesn’t work as well against Stanley (even though they end up more simpatico by the end), leaving the film feeling kind of flat. Plus, Nelson does not look like he’s having nearly as much fun as he did in the original. As far as I’m concerned, when Nelson is having fun, I’m having fun. It’s a rule.

The written word is still an important element in the sequel. Pages from his reworked script, which he tacks onto the wall, replace the graffiti the victims left behind in Stanley’s prison in the original. Alison asks of Stanley “Who are you… What are you?” and he responds with pages from his own edits of her screenplay. She then reveals, “It says here they are really dead… What does that mean?” Stanley blandly replies, “It means they’re really dead.” This scene represents the biggest issue I have with Return - There are no subtleties in the story. It is what it is, but what it is is not much at all.

There’s nothing really wrong with Return. In fact, it’s a decent little time waster, but I think I may have had higher expectations because of my recent viewing of the excellent original film. Could this be the first sequel I won’t watch more than the first? Perhaps.

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