“Society needs to crumble – we’re just too chicken-shit to let it.”
Coming out of the theater, there were a lot of phrases on my mind, and all of them were tantamount to a good, strong leg-humping. Standing atop the pile [after winning a bout of fisticuffs with the old classic, “A horror fan’s wet dream”] was, “Instant Classic is a term reserved for films like this,” and I think it’s bound to hold true in the decades to come.
The Cabin in the Woods is a film that you should see without even the most remote of spoilers. Honestly, I wouldn’t even recommend seeing the preview*. Much of the joy of the film lies in its surprises, and unraveling the mystery ahead of you. I suppose talking about a film without even touching on the story would be difficult in most cases, but there’s still a lot to say here. All you need to know is that the setup is stereotypical – the cabin in the woods, the five friends on a college vacation, the stereotypical roles of stoner, jock, and so on – but it soon turns everything on its head in the most delightful ways possible.
*The Cabin in the Woods – Trailer (if you can’t resist)
The Cabin in the Woods falls into the somewhat rare (and almost always genius) sub genre of comedy-horror. Sure, there’s scares and tension, but there’s also brilliant moments of humor. While the genre can be traced back nearly a century [Wikipedia told me, so you know it's true], Evil Dead II and Scream are likely some of the most familiar pioneers of the genre (with more recent examples in Zombieland or Slither). One of the key differences between this sub genre and its parent however, is a keen sense of self awareness, and an audience that’s seen enough horror to get the jokes. And that’s perhaps the irony; for the uninitiated, coming into the theater and expecting a rote horror blow out, The Cabin in the Woods might be a disappointment. But then, it’s really not a film intended for such viewers, and instead serves as both a love letter and wake up call to both the fans and the industry itself.
One thing I’ve consistently lamented over the past few years has been the sense that American horror seems to be in a bit of a rut. The old masters of the genre have both departed and returned, bringing with them disappointing films that missed the mark they once so firmly etched. In their place, we’ve been beaten over the head with remakes of foreign horror films, or barraged with yearly sequels of torture porn and found footage (whatever makes a splash will be emulated until nothing unique remains – that’s the Hollywood model). Apart from this, wide release horror has been scarcely seen in the theaters and, when it has, it hasn’t been all that great. To compare most recent American horror to a vapid, shambling corpse frantically seeking brains would not be so inaccurate. Thankfully, it seems that with The Cabin in the Woods, co-writer Joss Whedon and writer/director Drew Goddard have found that much needed grey matter. And yet, that too marks a conundrum for the films that follow.
If you know Joss Whedon, you were probably expecting good things the moment you heard his name and ‘horror film’ in the same sentence. With Dr. Horrible and Firefly alone, it’s clear that Whedon knows how to craft incredibly likeable characters that are more than just bowling pins. It should be noted, however, that the film is only produced and co-written by Whedon – a fact I didn’t take note of until after the film (thanks to the marketing campaign’s focus on his name). The Cabin in the Woods marks the directorial debut of Drew Goddard (who also tackled writing duties here), and it’s an incredibly promising showcase of his talent. From a clever and mercifully short opening credits sequence, to the gorgeous, perfectly framed shots, there’s not much to complain about. Sure, there’s a few sequences where the CG is a little suspect, but in the context, it’s quite forgivable. The score, too, is excellent, often bringing with it a volley of haunting strings, and closing with an excellent face-melter courtesy of Nine Inch Nails. Excluding Anna Hutchinson (who grated on me a little, although, even that seems as though it was at least partially intentional), the actors deliver quality performances that are frequently just as hilarious as they are sympathetic. Chris Hemsworth (who you know as the ridiculously bodied Thor) is likeable as ever, and Jesse Williams (the gorgeous one with pretty blue eyes from Grey’s Anatomy) proves that he has what it takes for the big screen. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are the resident ‘familiar faces’ and often veer dangerously close to stealing the show. And yet, perhaps the most welcome addition to the cast comes from two actors that have mostly taken background roles in the past. Kristen Connolly does an excellent job as the inevitable female lead, while Fran Kranz deftly balances perfect comedic timing with an endearing surprise performance. And that’s what really makes the film work; with The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon and Goddard land what is (for me) the number one rule of successful horror: a likeable cast that you want to root for – and, in a perfect moment of meta humor near the film’s closing act, it’s clear that this is not an accident.
It will be interesting to see if either Goddard or Whedon attempt a straightforward horror film in the future. The Cabin in the Woods is so aware of itself and the trappings of the genre, it makes it hard to imagine an original follow-up that wouldn’t be a tad bit hypocritical. The film takes old, familiar pieces, and makes them fresh and unique. The conundrum then, is that The Cabin in the Woods exists only because of the films that have come before it, that were not ‘good,’ and were endlessly predictable. It’s difficult to say that The Cabin in the Woods revitalizes the genre, when it feels more like, “Well… where do we go from here?” Perhaps the message is, “Do something new.” Or perhaps it’s just a wink and a nudge homage to those that came before. More likely, it’s a little bit of both.
This review originally ran at The Angry Luddite, friends of ours that sometimes cover stuff that falls through the cracks over here at FPM.