“Their blind eyes see nothing of the horrors to come.”
The first rule of The Cabin in the Woods is you don’t talk about The Cabin in the Woods. The second rule of The Cabin in the Woods is … you get the idea.
Cabin in the Woods is a movie that you don’t want to know much about, and I don’t want to tell you much about it. Before the screening, co-writer/producer Joss Whedon told the crowd, “Enjoy it and then keep it to yourself.” The first part was easy, because this is a fun movie, probably the most fun I’ve had in the theater since Drag Me to Hell. The second part, that’s much trickier, because I have to tell you something more than “you’ll dig it, trust me.”
But you will dig it. Trust me.
Here’s what I can tell you about The Cabin in the Woods. It’s ostensibly a horror film — five friends head off in an RV for a weekend away in a cousin’s cabin (which is, spoiler alert, in the woods) and things wind up not being quite as peaceful and serene as they hoped. When they first get to the cabin, they of course do the type of things one does in such a situation — pool swimming, drinking games, hooking up in the woods, etc. But things eventually take a turn for the bad when they discover a cellar full of creep. One reading-from-a-100-year-old-journal later, and there are dead men rising. And walking. And looking to kill this fivesome in splattery and bear-trappy ways.
It’s a pretty generic horror movie setup, and in one sense, The Cabin in the Woods is a generic horror film. But it’s also more, as Whedon and director/co-writer Drew Goddard are smart guys. If they’re going to bother to take the time to do a horror film, of course they’re going to do their version of a horror film, something that’s both clever and subversive. Using this basic premise, The Cabin in the Woods offers a meta-commentary on the horror genre, taking a seemingly generic premise and using it to unpack and recontextualize a lot of the standard conventions we’ve seen in horror films since time eternal. In one sense (and it’s only slightly hyperbolic to say this), it puts a new spin on every horror movie you’ve ever seen.
But lest you think this is just for horror wonks, or that it’s overly academic, let me be clear — it is not. You don’t need to be a student of or devotee to horror to appreciate or enjoy what they’re doing here. In fact, if you’ve seen pretty much any horror film, ever, you have the background to more than appreciate what’s going on. Also, it almost doesn’t matter, because while this film is smart and clever, it’s first and foremost a movie that is funny and fun, expertly balanced in the murky divide between creepy and whimsical. The humor is sometimes sophomoric (the flick has given me my newest favorite euphemism for an erection), and sometimes wry, but it almost always lands.
Very early on, there’s a simple and clever moment (irritatingly shown in the first trailer) which lays the groundwork for the fact that this is going to be more than a typical horror film, and the movie slowly builds on this premise until it hits a scene in the second half that I can only describe as fucking awesome. It’s at this point that the movie ratchets to eleven and goes full-on bananas. I desperately wish I could tell you what it is, because with a one sentence description I would sell most of you instantly. But as much of an asshole as I am, I can’t take the moment away from you, the moment of realizing with giddy joy that things are about to go absolutely and unapologetically shitballs insane.
All this said, while the movie is a fun ride, it’s still an R-rated horror flick. Although you don’t need to be a student of horror to appreciate and enjoy the film, you need to know that Whedon and Goddard take full advantage of their adult rating. The horror isn’t torture-porn graphic, but there is good splatter.
The writing and direction in the film work. Luckily, so does the cast. The most famous name is probably Chris Hemsworth, who you may know as Thor (though he filmed this role first — Cabin in the Woods has been on the shelf for a couple of years because of MGM’s bankruptcy and, probably, the insanely difficult task of how to properly market this movie). He imbues his alpha-male character with a sense of warmth and humor that play against the typical jock-y horror character type. Many may also recognize Jesse Williams from “Grey’s Anatomy,” and while I have no idea what his performance is like on that show, here he nails the slightly awkward, nerdy type (who happens to have ridiculous abs). Anna Hutchison similarly nails what could be a generic ditzy, blonde role, making her believably likable (in fact, one thing I can say without spoiling much is that unlike in your typical camp horror, you’re not really rooting for the death of any of these character). But the glue that holds this cast together is the combination of Kristen Connolly, a former soap actress of all things, and Fran Kranz, a former Whedon player (“Dollhouse”). Connolly’s Dana is a welcome addition to Whedon’s trope of kick-ass women, while Kranz is a scene stealing stoner who manages to give his character an underlying intelligence usually lacking in the prototypical fool.
There’s more I could say about the cast, including those who have not even been mentioned, but I want you to go in pure. The Cabin in the Woods is a self-aware horror film that seeks to give you a good ride while examining and maybe even reworking the genre. It succeeds in a way that is fast, fun and furious.
The Cabin in the Woods premiered at South by Southwest and opens in April. See it. Trust.