The Cabin in the Woods
I’ve seen a lot of horror films, and I’ve seen their trend towards greater and greater self-consciousness. Joss Whedon, though, knows storytelling and genre convention, and there’s a reason that “Whedonesque” is an adjective up there with “Spielbergian”. In Cabin in the Woods, he and director Drew Goddard present us with what might be called a horror movie mash-up. It’s easily the best horror movie I’ve ever seen, if only because it’s every horror movie I’ve ever seen.
A note before I begin: some of this may seem slightly spoilerish, but nothing I describe isn’t apparent from very early on. Still, if you’re particularly spoiler-averse you might want to take my advice and watch this great movie before reading about it. Okay? cool.
We start with a group of young college students heading off for a weekend at the titular Cabin. Young lovers Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) are setting up their bookish friend Dana (Kristen Connolly) with token black guy Holden (Jesse Williams). And their stoner friend, Marty (Fran Kranz), is along for the ride. They’re heading out to a Curt’s cousin’s new cabin by a lake out in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception, no way back to the city but a mountain tunnel, and no thought that there might be a werewolf or a merman or a mutant tree or a zombie redneck torture family or something out there meaning to do them all in. If this sounds like the setup to basically every slasher horror film since the genre’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, well, you’re right.
And you may have asked yourself why the kids in those movies are always doing stupid stuff that gets them killed. Why doesn’t the creepy old guy scare them off? Why do they go down in the dark basement? Why do they split up to be killed separately, one by one? As it turns out, it’s because there’s a whole team of people working to make sure that it goes exactly like that. Specifically, it’s the team managed by Steve (Bradley Whitford) and Richard (Richard Jenkins) in a high-tech bunker deep beneath the Cabin, with the assistance of new hire Truman (Brian White) and Wendy (Amy Acker) from the chemistry department. At the same time as we watch the kids up above we see the team managing things from below, all part of another weekend at work.
The whole concept is really genius in its simplicity, lying squarely in the intersection of “I could have thought of that” and “Yeah, but you didn’t”. The exploration isn’t as deep as Whedon’s philosophical musing through the second season of Dollhouse, but they clearly grow out of his desire to play with genre and convention in new ways. The film puts everything in the genre into a single framework that explains all the standing questions pretty neatly, and there’s plenty of room in here for subtextual analyses. Most importantly, it holds up the scary fun of classic slasher and horror films while at the same time delivering a much-needed slap to the recent wave of torture porn by depicting its representatives as dreary, low-level functionaries.
Co-writer and director Drew Goddard does a good job rendering Whedon’s vision; it probably helps that Goddard has worked with Whedon since back in Buffy and Angel days. The kids are all right — Kranz seems born to play this part, in particular — but Steve and Richard are the best characters by far. Whitford and Jenkins are both plenty talented, and they play off of each other excellently here. A great concept is one thing, but the cast and crew are what really make it go.
Will The Cabin in the Woods breathe new life into horror, as Whedon says he hopes? I doubt it; meta stuff is hard to pull off well, and the horror genre has been relentlessly self-absorbed for years already. Whedon may be able to come up with and pull off a masterpiece like this, but few others can do it so effectively. And aside from all the meta stuff, there’s not that much new here for lesser writers and directors to mine, so the field will almost certainly remain fallow. But if some film must serve as an ornate headstone before the rotting corpse of the genre shambles ever onwards, this one is a fine choice.
Worth It: absolutely.
Bechdel Test: fail.