Review: 'The Cabin in the Woods'
Horror Done Right
The studio sent a list of things they did not want revealed in reviews of “The Cabin in the Woods” (opened April 13 throughout San Diego) and I have no plans of revealing any spoilers. But I will say that even if the twists in this film are revealed, it’s so good that it wouldn’t matter.
“The Cabin in the Woods” has good pedigree. Its producer is Joss Whedon, who gave us the fabulous “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” on TV, and “Serenity” on the big screen. And its director is Drew Goddard who wrote multiple episodes of TV’s “Buffy” and “Angel.” And the two men collaborated on the script. What these guys have is a savvy sense of pop culture, a wicked sense of humor, and a geeky love for the horror genre.
Here’s all I will say about the plot, and to be honest, the film really shows its hand early because they are confident enough to know that the film is not just about a gimmicky plot. From the get go you sense there’s something odd about what’s happening. We get two seemingly parallel yet oddly connected plots. One has a group of young college kids heading off to the titular cabin in the woods. Then we have a pair of employees at an ambiguous corporation (the brilliant Richard Jenkins and hilarious Bradley Whitford) who seem engaged in a big project that involves the college kids but we’re just not sure how. What follows is what could be described as a clever and wildly fun deconstruction and reassembly of the standard Hollywood horror flick.
Quite simply, this film is delicious fun for anyone who loves horror. I have heard some people compare “Cabin in the Woods” to “Scream” but I find that insulting. “Cabin in the Woods” is the film I wish “Scream” had been if it had only possessed a brain. Here are the two defining differences between the two films and the reason I love “Cabin” and feel frustrated and annoyed by “Scream.” First, “Scream” references dozens of horror films through its film geek characters but it stops to explain every reference to the audience. This ruins the fun. It slows the pace down and it means that it suspects the viewers won’t get the references on their own. “Cabin” on the other hand makes continual references not just to other specific horror films but to the horror formula yet it never stops to explain the connections. It assumes we get them and if we don’t the film is still solid enough to play just fine without the insider knowledge. There’s a lovely frenzy of action at the end where film references come at you in mad flurries that leave you breathless as you try to identify them. And again the references are not all blatantly obvious. For once a film assumes that we are smart and doesn’t dumb things down because its afraid we can’t keep up.
The second difference is that “Scream” is actually afraid to try and scare you and it hides behind a jokey surface to mask its inadaquecies. “Cabin,” on the other hand, has humor but when it decides to put the pedal to the metal at the end, it gets serious about the horror. “Scream” is really a horror parody but “Cabin” is a smart horror film. And it doesn’t shy away from a gory bloodbath at the end but it’s not likely to be exactly the kind of bloodbath you’d expect. Plus it doesn’t shy away from a bleak and oddly selfish ending.
The studio restrictions do make it difficult to talk about the film because some of the best bits involve making revelations about the plot turns. That’s a shame because there’s really a lot I would like to praise about the way Whedon and Goddard play off horror conventions, and each time you think they are going to hit a convention, they surprise you with a clever spin or twist instead. They tweak everything from the formula of who dies first and last, to why people always seem to behave stupidly in panicked situations and split up when they should stick together and drop weapons when they should really hold onto them. And each time you think, oh they forgot to tie this up or catch that cliché, the film rewards you with a fun payoff.
The only horror films in recent memory that were this much fun and this astute in genre references were “Shaun of the Dead” and “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil.” What links these films is a love and geeky knowledge of the horror genre that makes them a blast to watch repeatedly.
I can say that “Cabin” is well shot with distinct stylistic differences between the cabin scenes and the work place scenes. It’s also well cut, keeping the back and forth between the two storylines moving effectively and without overcutting the action. The script is tight, ambitious, and elegantly constructed. It’s also damn funny. There are a few scenes that are laugh out loud hysterical. Much of the humor comes from the superb work of and interplay between Jenkins and Whitford. On a certain level these working stiffs could have come out of “Office Space” yet they are placed incongruously in a horror film. Their performances and the sharp writing in their scenes is what elevates “Cabin” to a higher level. These scenes are really the refreshing twist that writers Whedon and Goddard bring to the genre. As they did in “Buffy,” they prove that you can mix horror, comedy, emotion, and pop culture references with great success.
“The Cabin in the Woods” (rated R R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity) is a bit like the small indie Canadian film “Cube” but kicked up a few notches and with a bigger budget to elaborate on its high concept idea of a group of people trapped in something that seems manipulated by a higher power. Seeing “Cabin” actually intensifies my anticipation for Whedon’s “The Avengers,” which comes out next month. If you are a horror fan, you must see “Cabin in the Woods.” If you fail to catch it in theaters and support it by buying tickets, then you have no right to call yourself a horror fan and have no right to complain about the crap that studios too often try to pass off as horror fare. Right now genre fans have a chance to encourage Hollywood to make better films by going out to see “Cabin in the Woods” and “The Raid Redemption,” representing horror and action respectively. So, what are you waiting for, go. Go now and then go see them both again.
Companion viewing: “Cube,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil”