A film review by Craig J. Koban April 25, 2012

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS jjj
½ 

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

Directed by Drew Goddard / Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard

 

There is no conceivable way that I can relay to you why THE CABIN IN THE WOODS works so well on its intended levels without revealing key plot twists and revelations in my review.  Consider this a final s-p-o-i-l-e-r  w-a-r-n-i-n-g.  

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 genre.  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 creepy cabin 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.  

Then…hillbilly zombies appear… 

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 this lunacy.   

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is endlessly 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!  

  H O M E