Retro Rental: If You Liked 'The Cabin in the Woods' Try 'Capricorn One'

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Lionsgate/Warner Bros.

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, film critic James Rocchi presents "Retro Rental," a look at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now.]

Now that many of you -- or a lucky few, anyhow -- have seen 'The Cabin in the Woods,' the goofy/gruesome horror-comedy, let's assume that anyone who's going to read this has seen the film so we can talk honestly and openly.

If you grew up and at any point plunked 'Evil Dead 2' into a VHS machine, 'Cabin' is engineered to latch onto specific receptors in your moviegoing DNA. And sure, as the title suggests, the macabre chiller is one of the genres it locks into and also unlocks; then again, it also speaks of -- and clearly listened to -- the classic conspiracy film. Director Drew Goddard said how 'Dr. Strangelove' was one of his inspirations for the guys-in-ties parts of 'Cabin,' along with his youth in A-bomb central Los Alamos, New Mexico, but it oddly (but understandably) sent me back to 'Capricorn One.'

Released in 1978, 'Capricorn One' is the kind of big, broad page-turner-on-screen we don't really get anymore. Written and directed by Peter Hyams, it follows a scared NASA as they fake the first manned mission to Mars (because the real attempt was sure to fail in tragedy) with astronauts James Brolin, Sam Waterston and, uh, O. J. Simpson. The scheme, of course, goes badly, especially with a shabby-but-intrepid reporter played in classic '70s movie hero style by the scattered-but-righteous Elliot Gould1 tearing at the lie from one end and NASA insiders feuding and fighting on opposite sides of the cover-up at the other. (Said insiders include two 'All the President's Men' alumni, Hal Holbrook and Robert Walden. Great casting that's also, in a way, great coasting.)

And -- all passage of time not considered, thank you -- Brolin, Waterston and Simpson make for a great heroic trio, with Gould also coming in for the assist and a broad and blustery cameo by a hot '70s TV actor as a man with a plane when a plane would be a good part of the plan. For a nation reeling after Watergate -- and thus ripe for something both popcorn-crunchy and rustling with the fiber of righteousness -- Hyams' riff on the urban legends about the Apollo missions is a nice piece of period paranoia from a time when the Bicentennial American dream said reach for the stars but more recent history was telling you to watch your back.

Again, if you liked the dry workplace passive-aggression of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins in 'Cabin' as "the guys behind the big lie," the similarly-dressed technocrats of 'Capricorn One' are their predecessors; rocking short-sleeves and working long cons while just following orders. 'Capricorn One' has a slightly happier ending than 'Cabin,' to be sure, but they've both got paranoid, raw-nerve centers where all of society is out to kill you so they can keep things exactly the way they are; a shivery, sickly fear whether you're being whisked away from a capsule that was ready to launch or getting trapped in a cabin in the woods.

1 To explain why Elliot Gould is not simply, for but one example, Rachel and Ross's father, a few words from writer Britt Hayes: "'70s era Elliott Gould is to the essence of manhood what Hemingway was to writing; the two are inextricable. Intellectual, suave, witty -- and oh my, that hair. Gould could fire a gun with the same quickness and precision he'd later use to fire off a clever bon mot. Where Woody Allen was self-deprecating, Gould was keenly self-aware and confident, making him a sort of antithesis to Allen's patented neurotic ... Gould lent an air of intelligent savvy to tall, dark, and handsome."

James Rocchi is currently a film critic for MSN Movies and an entertainment correspondent for The Toronto Star. He has previously written for The San Francisco Chronicle, Aol’s Cinematical, American Movie Classics and Redbox.  He is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics of America and the Los Angeles Film Critic’s Association.

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