The Cabin in the Woods, like any Joss Whedon-related enterprise, seemed to get a free pass from critics around the internet, sight unseen. The film’s post-production woes certainly made it a sympathetic creature: completed back in 2009, the film’s release was scuttled due to the financial woes of MGM, which ultimately bestowed the rights to Lionsgate, the sort of company that usually makes this sort of thing anyway. Three years later, and after the (mercifully) averted threat of 3D post-conversion, The Cabin in the Woods is finally seeing the light of day, to the accolades of geeks everywhere. Is it as good as the hype? Oh, very much so. The Cabin in the Woods is the sort of movie that geeks (like myself) go completely batsh*t for, which makes me deeply concerned for its ability to reach a larger audience. This is the horror genre’s answer to Galaxy Quest, except for the whole Three Amigos thing, and smartly lampoons its genre while simultaneously playing every cliché head on. As such it might be a tad too clever for its own good.
The problem with reviewing The Cabin in the Woods is that it’s one of those “Red Eye Syndrome” movies that doesn’t reserve its twists and turns for the third act, so any description of its basic plot seems to qualify as a SPOILER warning. After years of buildup with nary a screening to be found, it strikes me as a tad ironic that upon its actual release the film still wants audiences to take its quality entirely on faith. I will not give away anything too revelatory in my review, but any halfway thoughtful discussion on its worth will necessitate a little background on the premise. I will, however, strive avoid any plot points that aren’t made clear by the 30-minute mark. If that doesn’t do it for you, then by all means, go about your business. But see The Cabin in the Woods at some point, because it’s really quite excellent.
For the rest of you intrepid readers, The Cabin in the Woods has all the classic elements of a clichéd horror story: a quintet of youngsters treks out into the woods for the weekend (which I guess some people do) for vacationing purposes. They’re played by professional attractive people Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz (“Dollhouse”) and Jesse Williams. Soon these kids are beset by evils and murdered one-by-one, with a little nudity mixed in for good measure. All the clichés are met to a “t,” from discovering the spooky cellar to poorly timed sexual interludes to “Let’s split up.” The twist is that these familiar genre trappings don’t happen by accident. They’re being manipulated by two working stiffs with a ho-hum detachment and a looming deadline, played by Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”).
Screenwiters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also skillfully directed) have more on their minds than simple genre subversion. Jenkins and Whitford are sympathetic figures despite their monstrous occupation, partially because we gradually get the impression that they’re doing it for a reason, but mostly because the horror genre has always fostered an intimate connection between the director and the audience. Horror fans are invested in more than just the story; they also care about the means by which their favorite directors deliver expected genre tropes. Jenkins and Whitford take their jobs seriously but have been at it so long that it’s just another Wednesday to them. Their blasé reactions to the plight of the young cast match those of the perceived production crew as well as the audience themselves, who are likely so familiar with the events of a “cabin in the woods” movie that it also seems like just another day at the office. You find yourself equally invested in the task of murdering the cast as you do in hoping they uncover the mystery behind their situation and make it out alive, a simply ingenious concept that plays beautifully.
It all comes crashing together at the end, as the conventional horror genre falls away in favor of something infinitely more creative, kind of like The Truman Show with greater catharsis. Horror fans will applaud and rave about the finished product to their friends, and as well they should. But The Cabin in the Woods may receive less enthusiasm from mainstream audiences who, increasingly, seem less invested in ironic detachment or subversion. Although the characters seem real, their situation is so high concept that I suspect it may not work well in a vacuum, leaving casual moviegoers who don’t spend their free time pondering genre theory twisting in the wind. There are plenty of pleasing moments in the film, which are humorous and, although not technically scary, at least violent and inventive. But is it too much to ask that a horror movie actually frighten the audience? The Cabin in the Woods is operating on a level beyond that, which I suspect may turn off the “normies.” But for everyone else this is an instant classic, endlessly clever and thrilling, and well worth the wait, as annoying as it was.
Photo Credit: Diyah Pera