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What is the cabin in the woods? You don’t really need to ask because you already know. It’s a place where all of your fearful thoughts, terrifying ideas, nightmares, and frights hide away and come to life in the form of horror movies. We tell ourselves that we are afraid of certain things because we actually are, but when they are manufactured in cinematic form we willingly subject ourselves to what scares us the most. Oddly enough, we dearly want to be scared and feel a sustained, fabricated feeling of horror, have it creep through our bodies, along our spine and in our heart ventricles, hoping that we will reach uncomfortable levels of dread that we find synonymous with talent and art. A horror movie that unnerves us is one that we praise and label as a genre benchmark, so writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have created a completely controlled wooded area with a cabin centerpiece that magically reveals to us all the greatness and silliness of horror films by presenting every single “scary” thing all at once under a satirical lens. A high-concept, recyclable logline is enhanced by wit, intelligence, creativity, and a tongue placed firmly in cheek to create one of the most original, demented, smart, creative, insane, frightening, twisted, crazed, awesome, hilarious horror comedy genre niche films I have ever seen.
A single reading of the above paragraph should be enough for you to understand that I have a strong adoration for the film, but by reading further, one will be treading dangerous waters. Now be assured, this is definitely a spoiler-free review, which means I refuse to discuss any major plot points or reveal any large spoilers, but to read further means you will consciously intake information and opinions on the film and to do that before actually seeing the film may have a serious impact on the film’s surprises. This is the kind of film that is best viewed with very little if not zero knowledge about it beforehand so hopefully Goddard and Whedon’s intense secrecy will be enough to draw you in. If you wish to enrich your viewing experience, come back and discuss the film with me when you get back from the theater and please turn away from this review at the end of this sentence.
The Cabin in the Woods features the tagline, “You think you know the story,” and it’s right there that Whedon and Goddard grab you. Like I mentioned earlier, they know that you are fully aware of what a cabin in the woods is so they tempt you by presenting the typical horror movie plot: Five college friends with cookie cutter personalities decide to hop in a Winnebago one weekend and rent out a secluded cabin supposedly owned by one of the yuppies’ cousins. The men outnumber the girls like a full house; the dumb, slutty blonde dates the hulking high school jock-turned-sociology major that still carries a football by his side at all times. Meanwhile, the innocent virginal redhead is being courted by the recent transfer student and the theorizing stoner looms by, happily single, with a pack of E-Z Wides in one hand and a zip-lock back of herb in the other. We viewers already register their inevitable demises, but their fates are being fully observed and controlled by someone else.
In the film’s first scene, we are introduced to Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), a uniformed duo who are outfitted for a mission control-type job. They man a massive control room that allows them to tweak the five teens’ weekend getaway into a tasteless orgy of carnage and gore. We struggle to understand the appeal of such a job noticing that this is a possible deconstruction of the morally driven or hiring-of-a-soulless-villain trope referencing Jigsaw from Saw and Se7en’s John Doe as comparisons. Then we think about horror film directors and what their reason is for directing horror films: To create lucrative entertainment and art. These two men are equal to horror film directors as they manage this designated plot of wilderness and turn it into a bloody dojo of human misery and dismemberment, just like real life filmmakers Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, Sean S. Cunningham, and Eli Roth have done previously. This is where the dark satire begins and from here it grows healthily into an impressively trippy, intelligently shocking, creatively sewn, and breathlessly hilarious comment and wild satirization of horror cinema that lies in the realms of both postmodernism and deconstructionism.
Instead of adding himself to that list of aforementioned directors, co-writer and director Drew Goddard decides to pull from all of them and blows the genre of horror up in the viewers’ face, breaking it down and revealing its innards with plans of twisting, crossing, turning, and remixing every worn out and squeezed-dry horror cliché. By embracing these clichés and being comfortable with their predictability, Goddard creates the sharpest horror satire since the original Scream back in 1995, only presenting its cleverness in subtler and more groundbreaking ways. Horror films have forgotten what it means to be a member of that genre and instead have dipped into the realm of torture porn (ex. Eli Roth’s tour-de-awful, Hostel) which desensitizes us as fans to horror. Technical and aesthetic skill is replaced by endless bloodshed. And an odd desire to see a young adult hacked into pieces has herded droves of moral filmgoers into seeing empty rehashes of horror schlock and every one of their ten sequels. Scream said, “Didn’t you ever notice this in every single horror movie you’ve ever seen? And this? And this? And this, too? Watch me point them all out to you while they’re happening and I’ll make you laugh at the same time.” In 2004, Edgar Wright echoed this over in the UK with Shaun of the Dead, and now Goddard and Joss Whedon have finally delivered the long-delayed The Cabin in the Woods, which says, “I’m going to exploit horror films while being a horror film that reminds you why you fell in love with the genre in the first place. I can surprise you, scare you, trick you, and tease you…and you’ll probably laugh as well.” The Cabin in the Woods is the defining film of a new subgenre and film movement that projects creativity through the exploitation of multiple genre tropes, cycling through genres and dismantling them by their good and bad qualities, presenting them both traditionally and outrageously at once.
The Meta nature of Scream is raised ten-fold in The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a genre hybrid: A fusion of self-reflexivity, alongside a seamless mesh of novelty and experimentation with convention. It filters the unexpected through the expected and exploits all the concepts imposed on ideas due to tradition. It’s the banner film of postmodern deconstructionism, a movement that, like film noir, is only being discovered now despite the collection of films that match the movement’s principles. Due to The Cabin in the Woods, stylized films like Drive, Brick, Mulholland Dr. and even a mainstream film like Inception have a defined genre with which to be affiliated, and it took a staggeringly original film like The Cabin in the Woods for this subgenre to be fully noticed. This eye-opening film has the potential to be the sleeper hit of the year and is destined to be a cult favorite whether it fares well commercially or not.
The Cabin in the Woods has a number of traditional cinematic merits as well. Goddard and Whedon’s excellent script is not only remarkable for the horror genre but is an astonishing screenplay all around. Drew Goddard’s direction is strangely confident for a debut and the performances he gets out of the star-less ensemble cast is definitely impressive. Shot the same year as character actor Richard Jenkins’ first Oscar nomination and a couple years before co-star Chris Hemsworth starred in both Thor and The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods has not suffered from any dust collected during its lengthy shelf time and it will hopefully be a breakthrough for the talented cast surrounding Jenkins and Hemsworth. The beautiful Kristen Connolly and hilarious Fran Kranz are standouts, as are the showy performances from both Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (where have you been since Billy Madison, Bradley?). These top notch aspects combined with the stunning core material of the film is a wake up call to the genre as a whole. Audiences have grown sadly tolerant to low quality horror so directors continue to churn out fourth-rate, hackneyed blunders barely worthy of the second listing on a double bill. Now, these two geniuses, Goddard and Whedon, are out to remedy the epidemic of lazy horror acceptance and with The Cabin in the Woods, they may have just saved a genre as easily as they created a new one.
This is a year that could fall a number of ways. It could be the Year of the Nolan, the Year of the Tarantino, the Year of the Scott, or possibly the Year of the Jackson. I will conclude by saying that viewers should remember that it could very well be the Year of the Whedon, as well.