I’m afraid the days of the straight horror picture are coming to a close. The genre, once so durable, was dealt a body blow in the early ’80s with the Evil Dead series, it then sustained a direct head shot in the ’90s with the self-aware and self-referential Scream movies, and now it has been all but finished off with movies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Attack the Block. I’m not saying that scary movies are on their way out; for every Attack the Block there are a half dozen Saws (in fact, I believe they’re working on their eighth Saw picture right now), and there is no shortage of remakes of horror movies, some based on movies that are barely 10 years old, but the sun may be setting on pictures with no better premise than five or six young people unironically going into the woods to have sex and get cut up by something. This is not a complaint, I am still waiting to see a great slasher movie, but I have seen a good deconstruction of one and it’s called The Cabin in the Woods and I liked it a lot.
I do not understand people’s reservations about spoilers, Citizen Kane is the same great movie whether you know Rosebud’s the sled or not, but since we live in a sensitive world I want you to know that I will be absolutely giving up every secret in The Cabin in the Woods between now and the end of the review. The Cabin in the Woods has been advertised as a fairly standard creeper, even its title invokes the setting of so many grisly scenes from films past (it’s so ubiquitous, based on its title, I thought for a while that The Cabin in the Woods was a remake), but its secret is ingenious as both a story device and a tongue-in-cheek look at the movies its poking fun at. We have five college kids and you already know who they are: we have the good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly), the slightly less good girl Jules (Anna Hutchison), her athlete boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his friend Holden (Jesse Williams), and the stoner goofball Marty (Fran Kranz). They decide to take a beat-up RV to a, say it with me, cabin in the woods that Curt’s cousin owns. The cabin is remote and creepy, and when night falls redneck zombies storm the house and start killing the kids one by one.
That’s standard stuff, but The Cabin in the Woods poses an interesting question: what if all the college kids in all the clichéd slasher monster movies were not victims of random isolated murdering sprees, zombie attacks, or rebirths of the Book of the Dead, but they were actually all connected as sacrifices in a worldwide ritual to satiate the ancient gods who live below the earth? The college kids were pre-selected precisely for their familiar horror traits, and the cabin in the woods is actually a well-controlled and observed location watched and run by the government to make sure the kids die in the prescribed ways and order. Beneath the cabin is a facility like mission control where men and women in shirts and ties watch the proceedings upstairs and flip switches and push buttons that send in more zombies or lock doors and basically create the conditions for buckets of blood. The ringleaders of the controllers are brilliantly realized by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins and the script does a good job of revealing tiny morsels of new information mixed in with its routine premise. Some of the details of the ritual and the government involvement are a little vague or wholly unexplained but that’s not really what the movie is about, it’s commenting on the genre of horror movies itself. Who are Whitford and Jenkins if not the writers and directors who go to great lengths to invent scenarios in which characters can go to a location, get undressed, get terrorized, and so on and so forth? Who exactly are the ancient gods who become upset if their expectations aren’t met and familiar notes aren’t hit? The movie is about making a horror movie, it includes all the things you need (there’s even a grizzled old gas station attendant who says ominous things like “Getting there’s not the problem, it’s getting back.”) and it’s also about the dangers and anxiety of not delivering. It’s like 8½ but with zombies.
The Cabin in the Woods was directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the script with Joss Whedon, two men who have made their names dangerously playing with the expectations of the most rabid of film and television fans. The fun of The Cabin in the Woods comes from the lengths it is willing to veer off the map. It plays a dangerous game but never gets too cutesy with its jokes or too far out with its inventions. Every time the story gets perilously close to being serious it hits us with a hilarious gag; I particularly liked one near the beginning at the expense of a famous anti-drug PSA and another at the expense of a man who’s not aware he’s on speakerphone.
The Cabin in the Woods is lacking polish, it leaves a lot of loose ends (for example, the man on speakerphone is never heard of again), and it doesn’t finish a lot of its good premises (apparently sacrifices like these are arranged throughout the world and the movie makes some good hay out of poking fun at Japanese horror movies as a group of Tokyo schoolgirls are terrorized by the living dead but it doesn’t complete many of those thoughts), but it has a lot of fun and we do too. The Cabin in the Woods is all camp and cornstarch, but it is able to generate a lot of big laughs and some genuine thrills and exciting moments. The horror genre has been explored and examined for comedy for decades but few with as much humor and thought as The Cabin in the Woods, which takes a risk and pays it off.