Written by: Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Directed by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You think you know the story.
A movie called The Cabin in the Woods has to be up to something, doesn’t it? That it was partially hatched from the mind of Joss Whedon should also clue you into this, and the title is indeed the first in a long string of gags in this brilliant twister of a horror flick. When it actually appears on screen, you couldn’t be further removed from the type of setting that it suggests, and you’re immediately hooked by this thing. And just as you begin to wonder how you’re going to that cabin in the woods, it begins to twist and turn, and when it finally boots you out of the theater, it leaves you wondering just how you got so far away from the title. However, The Cabin in the Woods is so immaculately sequenced that you're left smiling every step of the way.
The kernel of the story does involve five friends headed off for a weekend retreat. You know the types: the seemingly jockish alpha male (Chris Hemsworth), his vivacious, sultry blonde girlfriend (Anna Hutchison), his bookish buddy (Jesse Williams), the stoner tag-along (Fran Kranz), and, of course, the virginal girl among them (Kristen Connolly). On their way, they bump into the requisite harbinger of doom that doubles as the attendant of a rustic, dilapidated gas station. Despite his ominous warnings, they proceed anyway, and things only get more ominous from there. For some reason, one of the rooms has a one-way mirror, and the cellar door has a tendency to pop open to reveal all sorts of weird artifacts.
So they go down and hell is raised--how much and the exact kind of hell that’s raised is the big mystery that gets unraveled over the course of the film. There are literal levels to this film that are astounding, and this is not to mention the thematic depths that it plumbs. But even on its surface level--when it’s just being a “cabin in the woods” movie, it’d be among the best of its type--it’s atmospheric, intense, gory, and full of jolts. Whedon and director Drew Goddard have even supplied a fantastic cast to inhabit some well-written characters that actually go beyond their supposed stereotypes. Connolly is especially well-suited--she’s got “final girl” written all over from the moment you meet her, and she reveals herself to be as sweet and tough as any of her predecessors in that role.
The other standout is Kranz’s stoner--he’s like Randy from Scream if he were played by Seth Green, and Goddard and Whedon have a lot of fun with this character and what he usually represents in movies like this. You can obviously feel Whedon’s influence in the dialogue; these characters share his typical gab and come across as distinctive without being overly cute and aware that they’re stuck in a horror movie (which is a hugely important point since the film ponders the possible dangers of self-awareness). Other characters--like one played by an awesomely smarmy Bradley Whitford--surround the events in a more mysterious capacity, but the film never loses its sharp, witty edge. It’s very funny in a “straight” way as its characters interact, but it’s even funnier on an ironic level as it continues to expand outwards and slyly tips its hand.
This is the film’s greatest triumph. Goddard effortlessly dangles bits in front of your face before coyly snatching them away to lead you down this awesomely entertaining rabbit hole. I could rattle off numerous obvious influences here--it’s got the setup and demented spirit of The Evil Dead II, the eerie ghastliness of House by the Cemetery, and even the playfulness of The House on Haunted Hill. However, this isn’t half the story--shit, it’s not one fourth of the story, and, despite the setup's somewhat obvious riffing, its climax is like the projected cacophony from a horror fanboy’s wet-dream. Somehow, it ends up being unlike anything you’ve seen in a horror movie--you don’t get to say that very often anymore, so let it sink in. The Cabin in the Woods ends up being a horror flick by way of a Rubik’s Cube, only you never once want to throw it against the wall out of frustration--instead, you want to keep playing with it, once it’s over, you want to pick it up and play again. And again.
Goddard and Whdeon know how to construct a fine horror movie, which is good since that’s exactly what The Cabin in the Woods is about on many levels. Like Scream, it’s obviously poking at conventions and clichés, and even it can’t resist a few obvious and winky moments to make sure you get what it’s saying. It raises an abundance of issues, from audience expectation and participation to the very nature of why horror stories exist in the first place. As satire, it’s a brilliant deconstruction of the processed and often over-produced nature of horror, as it takes a stab at trends and the dangers of playing it safe--I think you can interpret the last act as a screed against the stultification of horror as a mere product. This is what happens when it's really unloosed and reclaimed--it's almost like a studio executive’s worst nightmare come to life. If Scream poked and prodded at the genre, then Cabin in the Woods completely eviscerates and reconstructs it in loving fashion, all while resisting the tendency to lapse into "the rules." Actually, Cabin is more a natural extension of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, as it too ponders what it’s like to keep horror stuffed away like a genie in a bottle.
In this respect, The Cabin in the Woods is exactly the type of film this genre needs on a regular basis. It’s a thrilling, slick masterpiece that chews you up, spits you out, and then asks you to chew over what it was up to the whole time. Many movies are easily digested, but I think it’s safe to say that this one digests you, at least the first time around--I have a feeling that it’ll continue to unlock itself on repeat viewings, which are already in order. I also think there’s a tendency to call The Cabin in the Woods a game-changer; I don’t think that’s accurate. I’d go beyond that--The Cabin in the Woods feels like the post-modern horror endgame that shuts the book that was Wes Craven opened a couple of decades ago. And it doesn’t just shut it with a thud--it slams it with blood-soaked authority. Essential!
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