I purposefully avoided reviews leading up to the release of The Cabin In The Woods. The early word on the film was that it was absolutely crucial to go into the theater not knowing anything beyond the bare essentials. That is what I ended up doing. I’m certainly glad I didn’t crack and read any detailed plot descriptions or reviews, and I would encourage anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film to do the same. However, after seeing the film and going back to read the critical opinions, I couldn’t help but notice a common trend. In an effort to keep their reviews spoiler-free, the critics kept their discussions as vague as possible. Most were enthusiastic about the film, but they couldn’t really say explicitly why it was worthwhile. I didn’t want to write a review like that, which is partly why it’s taken me a couple weeks to get my thoughts together. So this will not be a spoiler-free review. I won’t be going into full detail on anything, but there are certain elements of the film that can’t be avoided, so anyone who hasn’t seen the film and is interested in seeing it should stop reading after this opening paragraph. What I will say right off the bat is that the film is absolutely worth checking out, and it’s one of the smartest deconstructions of the horror genre I’ve ever seen.
A couple ground rules need addressing right here at the outset. Firstly, I had never previously seen anything directly related to cult hero Joss Whedon beyond Toy Story (which he co-wrote) and about 30 seconds of the first episode of Firefly. I know he is held in very high regard by a lot of people, and that he is also the director of the upcoming Avengers film. But he wasn’t the reason I was excited for The Cabin In The Woods, which leads us to the next point. I’ve talked about this in other posts, but I’m a big fan of the horror genre. This is why, out of the two big Joss Whedon-related projects in this early part of the year, I was anticipating The Cabin In The Woods much more than I ever will anticipate The Avengers (Not that I won’t eventually see that latter, more epic film, but it’s not something that is making me count the seconds to its release).
With all that out of the way, let’s have a quick plot synopsis. The film follows five college students as they make their way out to an isolated cabin in the woods for some vacation fun. The five college students consist of the not-quite-virginal bookworm (Kristen Connolly), the token jock (Chris Hemsworth), the shy and polite intellectual (Jesse Williams), the ditzy yet sexy blonde (Anna Hutchison), and the obligatory stoner (Fran Kranz). While at the cabin, they are terrorized and eventually picked off one by one by hillbilly zombies. Sounds like a typical horror set-up, right? No, not right. This is because all the strange and horrifying events occurring at the cabin are being controlled in an underground facility by two government technicians (The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins and The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford). This organization has set up a playground of textbook horror cliches and conventions to appease the sacrificial blood-lust of ancient gods.
Truthfully, all of the pre-release hype warning everyone to avoid any secrets is slightly overblown. The audience is introduced to the two government technicians right at the very beginning, and there’s never really any question as to what this organization is doing. Why they’re doing it is kept a secret for a little longer, but there’s nothing really particularly special about that reveal. Honestly, placing those two characters right at the beginning is a brilliant move, as it immediately makes clear the film’s intentions. Many of the reviews I read criticized the film for not being scary. To me, this is missing the point. I don’t think The Cabin In The Woods is ever supposed to be taken seriously as a straight horror film. Unless you’re paralyzed with fear at the possibility of jump scares, there’s not much in this film that could be called genuinely frightening or horrifying. Critics have drawn comparisons to Wes Craven’s Scream, but even that I don’t think is an entirely accurate connection; this isn’t a regular horror film that just happens to be populated with characters who are in on the joke. The closest comparison piece that I’ve seen is the much more recent Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil. Like that film, The Cabin In The Woods is first and foremost a comedy about horror movie conventions. Where Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil stuck close to one idea and playfully subverted the traditional “redneck killer” seen in horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Cabin In The Woods is a complete assault from every direction by all the staples of the genre.
There’s always a worrisome probability in projects like these that the final product could end up being too smug and intellectual for its own good. I usually am not too kind to films like these; for example, I absolutely hate the “post-modern grindhouse” films that have seen increased popularity in recent years thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Luckily, The Cabin In The Woods dashes all concerns right from the very beginning. As a horror film fan, I was constantly smiling in a state of geeky pleasure when a convention was subverted or a winking reference was made. One particularly inspired idea is that governments from around the world all participate in similar sacrificial exercises, and these governments sell their documented copies of these exercises to the movie industry, where they are released as horror films to the general public. The ancient gods love formula, so the American exercises stick to the cabin-in-the-woods stories, while the Japanese exercises all involve ghostly schoolchildren. It’s a fantastic joke at why cliches are so prevalent in the horror genre, and it’s just one example of the film’s gleefully demented sense of humor.
Still, one of the great strengths of the film is that you don’t have to be a diehard horror fan to appreciate it. In fact, I would say that even someone with an elementary knowledge of horror conventions would find the whole thing enjoyable, as long as you have a macabre sense of humor. As the government technicians, Jenkins and Whitford are consistently hilarious, making small talk and debating office politics while all sorts of grisly events play out in the background. In many ways, they steal the show, but the rest of the cast perform their roles with just the right command of tone. For the first two-thirds of the running length, The Cabin In The Woods remains relatively low-key. It seems content on lightly playing with genre conventions without straying too far from the traditional path. This changes, however, in the final thirty minutes, when everything flies off the rails in the best way possible. During this section, the filmmakers pull out all the stops, unleashing creatures from every memorable horror movie you can imagine. It’s pure anarchy, the type of turn that had me constantly picking my jaw up from off the floor. When this eventually hits home video, I’ll be going through this final section frame-by-frame to catch all the Easter Eggs, of which there might be hundreds.
This final section, unfortunately, also has what may be my only real criticism. Throughout the film, there are logic problems and holes in the plot that you can drive a truck through. I don’t want to be one of those people who makes excuses for every flaw in a film because it’s potentially doing them intentionally, but most of the logic problems in this film are easily forgivable. And yet, the final climactic scene doesn’t quite gel as well as the rest of the film. It spoils a nice cameo and a terrific final shot with some questionable character motivations and a villain with serious Talking Killer syndrome. This didn’t drastically effect my overall opinion of the film, but it did cause me to leave the theater wondering if there was a better way to end everything. Regardless, it’s only a small mark on what is otherwise an audacious and wickedly inventive motion picture. It’s a film that has future cult classic written all over it, and I’m happy to say it’s the most fun I’ve had in a theater all year.
Topics on the upcoming schedule: possible film reviews of both The Pirates: A Band Of Misfits and The Raven, possible video game reviews of two recent releases, and a lengthy post about a film challenge I tackled during the month of April.