(This review was originally published on April 13, 2012 at Reel Film News)
If “The Cabin in the Woods” sounds like a generic title, it’s only because co-writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon wish to stress the gleeful irony of their material. The film, which might be considered both a sympathetic wink to starving horror fans and a giant middle finger to the current horror establishment, acknowledges – with equal parts love and disdain – the very stereotypes that make most of these scenarios so ridiculous.
The example in “Cabin”, which follows five ostensibly cookie-cutter college students off to the woods for a weekend of sex, drinking and other behaviors that typically result in their grisly demise, gives the “Ten Little Indians” formula (on which essentially every slasher movie is based) a conceptual overhaul, with some monumental consequences to boot. And though you don’t need to be a Comic-Con veteran or have a subscription to Fangoria magazine, your enjoyment – nay, comprehension – of “Cabin” is dependent largely on your knowledge (and appreciation) of the genre, particularly in its final 30 minutes.
And there is a pretty big payoff. From the opening scene, it’s apparent that Cabin isn’t concocted simply for the sake of repairing lazy genre conventions. And, at least at first, it doesn’t seem arrogant enough to try to reinvent horror. First-time director Goddard, best known for his work on “Lost” and the “Cloverfield” screenplay, knows his co-writer so well (he penned several episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” for Joss Whedon) that the creative union, I imagine, was relatively seamless. What’s not evident about this film are its intentions, at least for the first half hour or so (there will be no spoilers here), and even when all hell breaks loose, it continues to twist.
We begin with two office types (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in a break room, commiserating about their mundane domestic issues in relatively comic fashion. As if preparing for tax season, the discussion turns toward an ambiguous annual event, something that apparently went awry back in ’98, a close call of sorts. They appear to be, along with a straight-laced analyst type(Amy Acker) and buttoned-up ex-military guy (Brian White), in some kind of sterile testing facility. At the same time, our five young adults are preparing for their RV trip to the cabin, all common sense stowed securely along with their beer and prophylactics. After all, what do they have to worry about? A whole lot, as it turns out.
As they head off into the wilderness, it’s made clear in a discussion that their destination will be out of cell phone range, one of many deliberate red flags made clear to the audience to re-enforce the film’s self-awareness. This group represents five of the aforementioned horror stereotypes: the jock (a pre-“Thor” Chris Hemsworth), the harlot (Anna Hutchison), the pothead (Fran Kranz), the scholar (Jesse Williams) and the closest thing to an adult virgin available in modern times, the wholesome Dana(Kristen Connolly). We understand that, for some reason, they are being monitored by the folks back at the facility. But there is something else waiting for them at the cabin, and soon after they arrive, mayhem ensues. We find out that if all the gang had to worry about were serial killers and zombies, everything would have been a whole lot easier for them.
At no point in “Cabin” are you completely sure where it’s headed. But there are a couple constants in the film: the exceptionally moody cinematography by veteran Peter Deming, whose experience with the genre spans from the “Scream” films back to “Evil Dead 2” (to which you’ll notice a few references if you pay attention) and Whedon’s unmistakably clever dialogue, which gives the film its comic tone. A conceptually risky twist on several horror premises while embracing conventions only to break them down (the film alludes to some of these almost subliminally – you’ll wish you had a pause button), “Cabin” eventually turns the whole concept on its head and then, well…. decapitates it.
It’s safe to say that this script wouldn’t have made it past the initial pitch if it were presented by anyone with less clout than Whedon, who also produced the film; this kind of re-enforces the creative blockade that it cleverly undermines (among other things). Appropriately gory, “The Cabin in the Woods” is not as much a scarefest as it is a tongue-and-cheek answer to recent, often lazy horror trends, and is perhaps the nostalgic enema that the industry needs. As likely as the film is to capitalize on over two years of hype, which I believe it deserves (it went into limbo after completion in 2009 when MGM filed for bankruptcy), it will be equally misunderstood by people outside the film’s intended demographic. In my opinion, despite plenty of flaws, it’s well worth the surprise.