A film review by Craig J. Koban April 25, 2012
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
2012, R, 96 mins.
2012, R, 96 mins.
Curt: Chris Hemsworth /
Sitterson: Richard Jenkins /
Hadley: Bradley Whitford /
Dana: Kristen Connolly /
Jules: Anna Hutchison /
Marty: Fran Kranz /
Holden: Jesse Williams
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS takes one of the most familiar of all
horror film concepts:
Five college students pack themselves into a van and then head to the
dark, desolate, and uncharted woods where they hope to unwind in a
loaned-out cabin. The young
characters are right from the genre convention playbook: the horny
blonde female; the bulky male jock; the virginal female; the handsome, but
book-wormy male; and the pot-smoking male.
Nothing set up in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is revelatory for the
We've seen this all before...
We've seen this all before...
...but…hold it right there,
people! The film's bare-bones premise is just a superficial guise to what really
lurks beneath writer Joss Whedon’s and director Drew Goddard’s (making
his filmmaking debut) horror-comedy.
The pair – who have previously worked together on TV’s BUFFY
THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL – are not aiming to lazily recycle horror
films of old; rather, their devilishly sly,
inventive, subversive, and freakishly ambitious concoction not only shows an
appreciation for schlocky 1980’s horror staples, but it also wishes to
invigorate the slasher/dead teenager genre by turning its very clichés
upside down on their heads for just the right skewering effect.
It would be simplistic to say
that Whedon and Goddard are just doing what the first SCREAM film did 16
years ago, but they aim beyond that film's snarky self-awareness.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS – filmed in 2009 and put on release hiatus
after MGM's bankruptcy, only to be released by Lionsgate now - does not just acerbically
reference its horror film
antecedents; it cleverly shows respect and disdain for them, which makes
the whole enterprise simmer with much more audacious innovation. Along the way, they also generate some compelling ideas about how
horror films are made, viewed, and perceived.
More often than not, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS almost becomes a
metaphor for how gore and shock-centric films are produced for viewer
consumption. Beyond that, the
film just seems to thrown everything at us: secret underground labs, ominous gas
station owners, hillbilly zombies, man-hungry mermans, ancient prophesies,
and, yes, a
that is not what it seems.
The film opens rather
unusually: we are introduced to two dweeby middle-aged scientists (played
by the winning tandem of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, both
wonderfully understated actors) as they engage in colorful – and oddly vague and
cryptic - dialogue exchanges about their job.
Slowly we begin to realize that they are heading to a vast, well
fortified, and well guarded underground laboratory surrounded by TV
screens, flashing lights, buttons, dials, and some very, very old looking pulleys. It
just as well could be a nuclear missile command center for all we know,
but as the film progresses we are given clues here and there as to the
scientists' real sinister motives, which will unalterably affect lives of their test subjects.
The subjects in question are the aforementioned college men and women: Dana (Kristen Connolly); Jules (Anna Hutchison); Holden (Jesse Williams), Marty (Franz Marty) and Curt (THOR’s Liam Hemsworth) have packed their bags for a getaway of much needed R & R from their college lives to an isolated cabin on loan to them from a friend. How they act and what they do when they arrive is of no surprise to horror film aficionados: they drink, smoke pot, play Truth or Dare, dance around, flirt with one another, skinny dip, have sex, etc. Then they enter into the cabin’s mysterious basement and discover odd gizmos, trinkets, artifacts, a diary filled with bizarre incantations, and other items that don’t feel…precisely right. Then there is the old cabin’s peculiar inclusion of one-way mirrors, not to mention that mood altering drugs enter the cabin, change everyone’s inhabitations and reduce their collective intelligence.
Just what the hell is going on
here? Well, it appears that
those bickering eggheads in that secretive high tech lab are behind everything as
part of an ageless ritual and a sadistic scientific experiment to
placate…ancient beings…with the blood of specifically targeted and
chosen victims (or types that have
paraded around in horror films before): the whore, the athlete, the
scholar, the fool, and the virgin. Failure
to appease these beings will lead to the end of the world.
The hapless college kids – much like oh-so-many teenage
characters in past slasher films – become unwitting puppets to all of
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is
fascinating, more so than what other standard order genre films would
offer up. The manner that the scientists drug the kids and turn them
into idiots incapable of making logical decisions echoes what writers have
been doing to similar characters in horror films for decades. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS becomes a critique of such creative nonsense,
not to mention that the scientists are stand-ins for crass horror film
viewers: the real frightening element in the film is watching the
congenial and everyman-looking Whitford and Jenkins stare at their
monitors with complete indifference in anticipation of the teens being
served up for the slaughter. They also
crudely manipulate conditions within the cabin to morph the college kids
into obligatory horror characters that do what stupid horror film
characters do, which usually leads to their preventable deaths.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS becomes a double threat satire, in a way: it
chastises both lame genre conventions and the way filmmakers and audiences
have allowed the genre to devolve over the years.
Whedon and Goddard also have
fun with the characters themselves. They
are all perfunctory characters…and they’re not.
The blonde, sex-starved bimbo is not a real blonde (she dyed her
hair) and is pre-med; the hulking alpha-male jock has book-smarts and is
quite scholarly; and the reefer-addict is no misguided dummy, but rather the sane and unaffected voice of
reason throughout the film. It
takes the scientists' overt manipulation of these people to turn them into
mechanical characters. so to speak. The
unique dynamics of all the roles and the way the makers set them up within
the jigsaw-like nature of the film’s underlining premise and plot twists
demonstrates just how shrewdly the film defies and admires the formulas of
past slasher efforts. The
film becomes an unholy love child of THE TRUMAN SHOW, THE
TWILIGHT ZONE, FRIDAY
THE 13TH, and THE EVIL DEAD (watch for many blink-or-you’ll miss-it Easter
Eggs to Rami’s splattergorium classic).
The film is also unpredictably hysterical at times, thanks largely
to the manner that Whedon gives all of his characters dialogue of an
atypical flavor and sharply defined wit. For instance, when it
appears that one of the girls is about to read an ominous Latin chant from
a mysterious text that makes Marty increasingly anxious, he amusingly
deadpans, "Okay, I'm drawing a line in the fuckin' sand. Do not
read the Latin!"
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS seems to scold the recent advancements and popularity of the torture porn genre (that substitutes scares for numbing carnage), but it takes a contradictory misstep by amping up an insidiously crazy climax that unravels the film into the same mindless and wanton bloodletting it appears to be admonishing. The final 20 minutes of the film are just too unhinged for their own good with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink being thrust at viewers. Yet, there is no denying that Whedon and Goddard show great zeal, daring bravado, fearless inventiveness, and a thankless willingness to revitalize the horror film with their game-changing efforts here. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS stuffs itself to the rim with overused and lame brained contrivances that Whedon and Goddard have despised in previous horror films and then joyously and skillfully takes a hatchet to them. The film works splendidly as a love ballad to the slasher genre and as a scrutinizing condemnation of it, which is a large part of its unique and twisted charm.
And be afraid of the merman. Be very, very afraid!