The Cabin in the Woods
Directed by Drew Goddard
Screenplay by Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford
How long is The Cabin in the Woods? 105 minutes.
What is The Cabin in the Woods rated? R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity.
A Grim, Giddy, Ghastly Delight
The cabin in the woods is a familiar setting to movie fans. It usually signals hard luck for a group of sexy young people who, after all, just want to get away and have some fun. It seemed unlikely that a visit to such a cabin could offer many surprises, even from a pair of writers as famously inventive as Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. Well, guess what? They are still inventive – aggressively so – and The Cabin In The Woods has plenty of surprises in store.
Most of us have seen the horrific fate of teens in the wilderness played out countless times. From getting to know the characters on the road, to the creepy “last chance” gas station, to the first sexual encounter and subsequent slaughter and so on, your average horror fan can tap a foot in time to these plot points. What, then, are we to make of a slasher film which begins with two scientists (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) trading jaded, mundane banter as they suit up to oversee the massacre from a high-tech underground bunker?
At several points during the first half, it may seem that The Cabin In The Woods is showing entirely too much of its hand. Have faith, though, that Goddard and Whedon have invested their script with more than ample energy to blow the roof off the final act. The curious structure, in which we quickly learn that this “conventional” horror plot has been organized at least as thoroughly as the Hunger Games, transforms the early scares into scenes of suspense. We grasp anxiously at dim ideas of what lies ahead, not simply because we recognize the beats from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes, but because we’ve been teased with the information as the control room prepares to put it into action.
The script is well penned, but a good cast is the other half of making this outlandish film work. The technicians, who approach their ghoulish work with the same complacent expertise as the NASA eggheads in Apollo 13, keep the gallows humor flowing like magma. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are fantastic, and could have a comedy duo worth taking on the road buried somewhere in their roles as the head science types. Jenkins in particular does some of his best work to date. We know from Let Me In and Burn After Reading that he can suffer elaborately. It is a pleasure to see him in such sanguine good spirits for a change.
Meanwhile, the unwitting victims operate with skill and confidence on the basic level of the horror-movie-within-a-movie. They embody the stock figures of virgin, slut, alpha dog, pothead, and brainiac without any particular character wearing too thin. Dana (Kristen Connolly), a doe-eyed redhead singled out as most likely to survive, is positively angelic. So there. Her best pal Jules (Anna Hutchison) does sex-crazy blonde duty. Chris “Thor” Hemsworth conjures a surprising amount of charisma whilst playing the piggish superjock. Jesse Williams is a little tacked on as a sensitive potential love interest for Dana, while Fran Kranz joins in as the stoner and sage of the party. His prophetic (and genuinely hilarious) ramblings foretell trouble and doom parallel to what we know the people underground are planning. They are all sufficiently enjoyable company that we are bound to miss them when they start dying.
It all seems to have started as a garden variety road trip to the family lakehouse, but we see that every move has been planned and rigged by the mysterious underground organization. Clearly Jenkins and company are leading these poor kids into a hideous trap. But whatever for? Hints abound that other agencies are carrying out similar exercises worldwide. Just what pulls the strings behind The Cabin In The Woods, beyond the usual questions of who dies first or who gets out alive, is the mystery looming at the end of the line. At certain points along the way, you may feel stunned and agape at what you discover. With eerie creeping sequences linked by manic bursts of energy, count on having little adrenaline left in the pipes as you walk out into the sunlight afterwards.
Without delving into excessive detail, it is plain that The Cabin In The Woods has many things on its mind. It begins as a witty spoof on the age-old slasher formula. But it soon swells beyond these boundaries to comment, however wryly, on the nature and significance of horror stories in general. Mischievous speculation on the cultural significance of everything that scares us to death opens the door for a completely outrageous final act. With so much going on, the climax and conclusion give a vague impression that an intricate and fantastically expensive TV mini-series has been packed into an hour and a half. The plot accelerates so gradually and so steadily that you may well catch yourself wondering “How did we get here?” in the final minutes.
Besides all the satire and meta-mugging, the movie also has genuine sex appeal and loads of delightful, impossibly shiny Whedon-speak. If the MTV awards had any class left, this movie would be sweeping them this year. Nicely crafted and executed, given the overriding freakiness of its tone and subject matter, it has the potential to appeal to a wide age range. Above all, it is consistently entertaining. Despite dropping constant hints about what lurks ahead, it guards the full scope of its horrors until just the right moment.
A common complaint is that horror films of substance and quality are hard to find nowadays. The truth is that they have always been rare, but with enough time and patience the worst garbage of any decade will be largely forgotten. This allows us to look back fifteen or twenty years and moan about how much better and scarier movies were when we were youngsters. The Cabin In The Woods stands a good chance of being remembered, because it is not simply a cute prank on horror thrillers. It is a legitimate member of the family. It also takes pains to be funny in the right places. This relieves tension, separates the thrills into memorable doses, and spares audiences the sensation of being tortured.