The Cabin in the Woods
starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, and Fran Kranz
written by Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard and directed by Drew Goddard
Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity.
Curt’s (Hemsworth) cousin just bought a cabin out in the woods, and now Curt and four of his college friends (Connolly, Kranz, etc.) are loading up the camper for a weekend of rustic debauchery. The trip begins promisingly, but quickly turns sour as night falls and the friends are systematically hunted and picked off one by one. Horror ensues.
The Cabin in the Woods left me simultaneously wanting to talk and talk and talk someone’s ear off about it, but not wanting to ruin someone else’s pleasure of discovering its many surprises for themselves. So, in consideration of the latter impulse, I could just stop here after noting that, although the film’s hook gives off every appearance of being a slavishly by-the-numbers slasher movie, any horror fan would be doing themselves a grave disservice if they missed seeing it. If you think you might want to see it, and you’re very spoiler-conscious, this would be a good time to stop reading (though, in that case, you should have stayed off the internet entirely). I intend to continue in general terms only, but if you care, don’t take the risk.
During the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, I was beginning to think it would make an excellent double feature with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, last year’s hysterically clever inversion of the “hillbilly horror” formula. Maybe 30 minutes after that, I began to suspect that it would be a better match with Scream, Wes Craven’s genre-savvy meta-commentary on slasher movies, which went on to spawn its own horror franchise before spiraling into extreme self-parody. Eventually, I realized that The Cabin in the Woods, though it might be at home alongside many classic horror films, is really in a class all by itself.
Film scholars and enthusiasts frequently write essays, articles, and even entire books discussing and dissecting the horror genre and what makes it tick. What is “horror”? Why does it exist? Why do people enjoy horror movies? A lot of what they have to say is insightful and thought-provoking, but the broad appeal of reading an academic treatise is always somewhat limited. Whedon and Goddard have, instead, addressed these questions in highly-entertaining movie form. Their movie simultaneously critiques and revels in the excesses of the genre, and ends up rather cheekily suggesting that horror can save the world, even though (or, perhaps, because) its roots are in a place of primitive darkness and evil from humanity’s shared past.
However, as I said, the interest in hearing all of this spelled out, while fascinating to me, is limited. In The Cabin in the Woods, it is largely subtext, and even when the movie is essentially spelling out genre archetypes and their functions, it doesn’t lose sight of the all-important goal of giving the audience a good time with unexpected humor and storytelling that is full of surprises. It’s also, as near as I could tell, full of holes from the ground up, but getting hung up on that rather misses the point.
It’s great to see Whedon veterans like Amy Acker and Fran Kranz in familiar roles. Even better, though, are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as Sitterson and Hadley, thinly-veiled author surrogates, sardonically exchanging wry, self-aware banter as events unfold. They’re like Statler and Waldorf, the Muppet critics: technically part of the movie, but one-step removed, and always ready with an irreverent comment.
Now, given that I have used the word “horror” 10 (now 11) times, I’ve probably given a pretty strong impression that this is a horror movie. That’s not strictly true. There are a few jump moments, some disturbing images, some conventionally scary situations, and a definite penchant for blood and gore. That said, I laughed far more than I cringed. The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie the way Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Army of Darkness are horror . . . by default. This is an exceptionally sharp comedy, packed to the rafters with allusions and inside jokes, from a writer who is known for playfully blurring the lines between genres, and it’s hard to have this much fun and not think happy thoughts about Whedon’s forthcoming The Avengers.