Monday, May 15, 2023

Hell Is Dinner Theater

The wonderful Station Eleven (both Emily St. John Mandel's novel and the underseen HBO miniseries adaptation) makes great use out of a powerful Star Trek line: survival is insufficient. The same concept is expressed more than once in today's original Netflix horror movie (courtesy of Norway) which also takes place in a sad apocalyptic universe and features a band of traveling actors performing for a depressed, starving audience.

I think the similarities end there, but I'll take any excuse I can find to recommend Station Eleven.

Quick Plot: A world war is in full force, with nuclear attacks devastating Europe. We focus on a sad corner in Norway where stage actress Leo and her husband Jacob are struggling to protect their 10-year-old daughter Alice. Food is in short supply, and hope is even scarcer. 

One day, a traveling showman passes by announcing a one-night-only performance complete with a hot meal in the town's grand hotel. With little to lose, Leo convinces Jacob to make it a family outing. Despite being told that children aren't allowed, the trio find themselves seated at a table with another little girl and her oddly nervous parents. Before they can continue their awkward wartime small talk, it's showtime!

Producer Matthias provides the instructional overture: the stage is the entire hotel, and the audience is to wander the interior grounds wearing gold masks and following the actors as they play out various stories, which range from sexy to homicidal. 

Yes, it's basically Sleep No More.

Jacob is immediately ill at ease while the more theatrically seasoned Leo is willing to go with it. Of course, right as Jacob reluctantly agrees, Alice disappears and things get weird.

Well, weirder than an already unusual apocalyptic dinner theater production.

You can't say too much more about the plot of Cadaver without giving some key directions away. As you can guess from the setup, a good chunk of the tension comes from wondering which of the two paths it will go: either the cast is murdering the audience, or the cast is so good that our protagonists will THINK they're murdering the audience and discover the truth too late. This ain't my first time at the high concept horror rodeo!

I won't say where Cadaver goes, but I will say that with its lean running time and solid commitment to its own theatrical nature, I found myself enjoying the heck out of this Norwegian thriller. Writer/director Jarand Herdal makes good on his odd little premise, and production designer Ondrej Lipensky nails the spooky decadence of a luxury hotel with as equal amounts trap doors and oil paintings. It looks exactly as it should, and it goes a long way in sustaining the theatricality. 

High Points
Herdal makes a smart decision in just how little detail he gives about the current state of the characters' world: there's a vague WWII tone but no clarity in terms of time, location, or politics. It works well, making the landscape of Cadaver an instantly recognizable wasteland without any distractions. 

Low Points
Leo proves to be a formidable force, but for much of Cadaver's runtime, it's hard to break the "has this lady never seen a horror movie?" frustration as she makes terrible decision after terrible decision

Lessons Learned
Never trust a dinner theater production where the food is actually good

When in doubt, taste the blood

Yes, the eyeball of any creepy painting is always watching you. Just accept it

Cadaver doesn't quite get everything it could out of its neat premise, but it's an enjoyable, unique ride well worth its quick 90 minute length on Netflix. Have at it. 

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