The Cabin in the Woods is brilliant. It’s going to be hard to get to why without spoiling the ever-loving shit out of this movie but I’m going to try. I’ll split the review so that there is a spoiler-having section. Under no circumstances should you read that part unless you have seen this movie. Because The Cabin in the Woods hinges so very much on conceits and twists that need to unfold and work on you in their own good time, it would be a shame to go in knowing too much about it. Suffice it to say for the intro here that it’s simply the best horror movie, meta (it’s a horror movie about horror movies) or otherwise, of the past few years and shows unequivocally that there are exciting places for the genre to go, even while harvesting the cliches and rituals that made it vital and entertaining in the first place.There is nothing at all “new” about the movie’s A-story except that the dialogue is great, but I mean that’s to be expected with Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard writing the thing. It’s about a collection of college students who head out to a remote “country house” for a weekend away. The perfect set-up for a horror movie and one that’s been used dozens of times and was probably initiated by The Evil Dead from which this movie cribs a lot of material while simultaneously paying high-level homage to it. That’s sort of the trick and the beauty of The Cabin in the Woods, it’s simultaneously a send-up and a love-letter to horror films. Unlike Scream, it focuses on as many genres as possible with a few favorites. Also unlike Scream, it’s brilliance transcends clever self-awareness and ironic reversals and gets to some really meaty philosophical ground underlying the nature of horror movies, audiences, and the deep-seated psychological urges and desires that keep all this compelling.
It is actually difficult to find/choose pictures for this review since the best shots in the film would totally spoil it.
So on its surface, The Cabin in the Woods seems like an also-ran or update on tested tropes. Those who have seen the trailer will have noticed that there seems to be something else going in there somewhere, as well. Some strangifying element that takes the shape, in the trailer at least, of a couple strange shots such as a hexagonal barrier that encloses the site of the titular cabin, as well as a weird bit of elevator and industrial-type interiors that don’t seem like they’d be anywhere near a cabin in the woods.
Without spoiling it, the conceit of including this strange stuff (and putting it on the table early in the movie) is that you have your audience trying to figure out what it’s about and where it’s leading while you’re doing a lot of classic horror with the A-story. A huge part of what makes The Cabin in the Woods so brilliant is that it finds a way to lull you into a certain mental place, one of intrigue and inquisition, while it pushes tension and terror with tactics that you’ve likely already experienced in other films. Because part of your brain is occupied with “puzzle” elements, you’re ripe to be taken in by those scares. The mystery, if you like, has this weird bleeding effect for the characters in that you actually care more about them than you might in any average horror movie where, let’s face it, you’re mostly hoping that the batch of assholes is going to be killed off in interesting ways. Goddard and Whedon manage to make their cast almost instantly likeable across the board, though, so the fact that we know something weirder than an Evil Dead re-imagining is happening here supplements a pre-existing relationship between audience and cast.
The characters that make up the college kids portion of the cast all have their various charms. Though it’s subtle, the movie makes some bones about how the circumstances of the events in the cabin are shaping their personalities. This means that they begin to resemble the cliches that make horror fodder exactly that. The conflict between who they are when we meet them and the stereotypes they begin to embody is another source of investment for the audience. It works beautifully and is simply a brilliant (there’s that word again, get used to it) way to construct the thing.
Who these people are and what they’re up to is a source of tons of fun, mystery, and pay-off for this movie.
The characters are actually split into two groups: the aforementioned college kids and a group of white-collar technicians and lab types who are… up to something. A lot of the funny comes directly from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, playing off each other and Amy Acker. The humor here is basically a mix of office humor and that sort of hilarious disconnect between supernatural/weird events and circumstances and a mundane reaction to same. That’s something that has characterized Whedon’s work through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and always seems to work best in his hands.
It’s nice to see a mix of Whedon alums like Fran Kranz, Amy Acker, and Tom Lenk rolling around the movie. The other collegiates are made up of Chris Hemsworth (this movie was shot before he got famous), Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams. They’re all good, especially Kranz as permafried bong-wielding Marty. Some get more to do than others, especially once they start slipping into the horror stock character territory, but everyone is fun and having fun. There’s also a really great cameo at the very end that I won’t spoil, not even in the spoiler section.
What else can I say about this movie without spoiling it? I guess that it’s tone is pretty misanthropic and thus The Cabin in the Woods feels like a movie the Coen Brothers could have made if their sensibilities were different. It’s got a bit of their dark “fuck humanity” humor in it, especially toward the end. Speaking of the end, again without spoiling it, the last 20 minutes of the movie go completely and gleefully insane. It’s one of the best climaxes and denouements in memory and is the definition of payoff.
The Cabin in the Woods is must-see, an instant cult classic that’s going to be referred to, quoted, and copied (but hopefully not) for years. After all the failed attempts to reboot flagship slasher franchises, this movie may just be the salvation of the entire fucking genre. As big and broad as it goes, that’s an exciting prospect.
Fucking see it. Just do it. You don’t even have to thank me.
Things start getting weird pretty quick.
FUCKING SPOILERS, TURN BACK NOW.
Okay so how about that fucking ending, eh!? As cheesy as some of the effects were, we’re talking about a point where they are saying “okay fuck it, unleash Hell” and they know some of its going to look weird or just be weird, maybe too weird to feel anything other than total bewilderment. Oh well, says the movie, fucking deal with it. And that is awesome.
I wish I could take credit for the interpretation, but Goddard did an interview where he described how the movie is ultimately dealing with human sacrifice in a youth-specific sense. According to him, human cultures have always been fascinated by and destructive toward the youth and that The Cabin in the Woods derives its misanthropic, punk-rock ending directly from that. Given that Marty and Dana decide “fuck the world, let ‘er end” and allow the Ancient Ones to be released, we’re seeing the youth throwing up a shining middle finger at the older folk who would sacrifice them to appease jealous, asshole gods.
The idea that the mysterious company that, all around the world, tries to contain these gods by enacting and re-enacting culture-specific horror movies is one that is hinted at very early in the movie. In fact, the opening credits contain a pile of scenes depicting the torture and sacrifice of people which I’d say is meant to stick in your heads while the circumstances sort of unfold within the movie later on. There’s a rather big info-dump toward the end which simply summarizes what, I hope, most of the audience has already picked up. You have to admire the simplicity of the ideas with the complexity of their execution. That the end shows you a veritable running gallery of riffs and homages to very specific horror movie figures and monsters is an example of where that complexity and simplicity meet.
I could seriously spend buttloads of time unpacking all my favorite bits from this film. So can you, if you’ve seen it. A lot of the fun of talking to people about this movie is going to be cataloging those moments. I generally don’t think that’s what reviews are for, though, so I’ve tried to keep it to what I think speaks for the movie’s quality beyond my own particular reaction. Still, I can’t help myself.
Evan’s Favorite Stuff:
-the Merman payoff
-all the ridiculous, crazy shit you see on the whiteboard and the fact that you get to actually see most of it face-to-face in the climax
-the speaker phone gag, just lightning in the bottle for a movie like this
-acknowledgement and exploration of the horror stereotypes of whore, athlete, scholar, fool, and virgin that really have been staid in mythology and horror stories right up to the modern age
-the laugh that is had at Japanese horror films and Richard Jenkins’ hilarious reaction to the little schoolgirls singing to the fucking frog… oh maaaan
-the laugh that is had at the ridiculous choices made by otherwise reasonable people in horror films
-the one-step removal of the audience watching this movie from the audience watching/controlling the mayhem at the cabin… there’s a lot that I’m still working out with this part of the “meta” aspects of the film
-Curt’s fatal stunt, hahaha
Okay so that’s my list for now. I’m going to see the movie again and though I likely won’t blog any extensions, I’m sure a second viewing will double its size. I mean, what a fucking movie.
And how could I forget Weaponized Bong?