Cabin in the Woods, The (United States, 2011)April 11, 2012
Note: The Cabin in the Woods works best if left unspoiled. Its impact relies not on a single unexpected twist but upon the cumulative impact of little unanticipated actions and incidents. It's virtually impossible to write anything coherent without giving away a few things and, while I have attempted to avoid specifics, some potential viewers who read this review may come away with a better understanding of the overall plot than they would prefer. Consider yourself warned!
The setup is a familiar staple for horror fans. A lonely cabin in the woods, cut off from civilization. Five college-age men and women on their way there to spend a weekend drinking, having sex, and engaging in other activities like exploring a dark basement. One girl is virginal. The other one goes topless. One of the guys is never without a joint. The fivesome gathers for a swim in the cold water then sits around playing Truth or Dare. That's when the zombies show up. Director/writer Drew Goddard and his co-scribe, Joss Whedon, are toying with us but, despite being occasionally hilarious, The Cabin in the Woods isn't intended as a horror comedy a la Zombieland. It offers considerably more than one might expect based on the surface story. This is hinted at during the opening scene, which features conventional-looking engineers Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) discussing an ultra-secret project they're working on.
The devilishly clever script tries a lot of things. Not all of them work, but it's hard not to admire Whedon and Goddard for the attempts. This is definitely not your standard kids-get-slaughtered-by-zombies motion picture. There's a little Sam Raimi here (more Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness than the straightforward Evil Dead). But there's also a hint of The Truman Show and a smidgen of The Matrix. And the filmmakers don't stuff all their eggs in one basket. The Cabin in the Woods doesn't depend on a single shock twist. It builds on little revelations that come together like a puzzle. Along the way, there are plenty of great one-liners and individual scenes. There's even what amounts to a terrific music video.
When the movie was made in 2009, the primary cast members - the five who travel to the cabin - were relative unknowns, with the majority of their work done on TV and in obscure features. For the most part, that's still true of Kristen Connolly (who plays Dana), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Jesse Williams (Holden), and Fran Kranz (Marty). Chris Hemsworth, however, has since hit it big. Not only has he played Jim Kirk's dad in the J.J.Abrams' Star Trek, but he has taken on the role of the God of Thunder for Kenneth Branagh (in Thor) and Joss Whedon (in The Avengers). More familiar faces were chosen to play the roles of the men and women working in the secret laboratory. In addition to Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, Sigourney Weaver lends her presence.
This is Goddard's directorial debut, although certainly not his initiation into the Whedonverse. In fact, over the years, Goddard has had frequent interaction with both Whedon (as a writer for Buffy and Angel) and J.J. Abrams (as a writer for Alias and Lost and as the screenwriter of Cloverfield). Goddard evidences a strong understanding of conventional, modern horror. Although it would be unfair to classify The Cabin in the Woods as pure satire, there are satirical elements at work. The film's willingness to defy conventions and use a multi-layered approach is fascinating and ambitious. Watching this, I don't know if we're having as much fun as Whedon and Goddard experienced while developing the premise, but the energy is conveyed.
With so much effort being put into assembling a coherent puzzle from a series of seemingly unrelated pieces, one of the nice things about The Cabin in the Woods is that we are still allowed the time and opportunity to get to know (and like) the characters. They talk like real people. They genuinely seem to like one another. Although they ultimately are pawns being manipulated by chessmasters, they don't seem that way. Their essential humanity is one of the reasons The Cabin in the Woods works. Their life-and-death struggles provide an effective counterpoint to the snarky, cynical attitudes of Sitterson and Hadley.
The Cabin in the Woods opens a mere three weeks before Whedon's bigger, more high profile The Avengers, although the two films went before lenses two years apart. Consider this an appetizer although, when the dust settles, it may be that The Cabin in the Woods stands out as the more audacious of the two. As a pure horror film, The Cabin in the Woods is only moderately successful, but it works in so many other ways that it must be forgiven the limited number of scares and the lackluster ending. The movie invigorates the genre, which is a rare and welcome thing.
Cabin in the Woods, The (United States, 2011)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Music: David Julyan