Movie Review: Cabin in the Woods
Horror and comedy are a tenuous blend on the best of days. While most attempts result in painful failure, a few films have absolutely knocked it out of the park: American Werewolf in London, Motel Hell, Return of the Living Dead, Tremors, House, Slither (and arguably) Scream. So, when heading out to see Cabin in the Woods (Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s horror/com that’d been sitting on the shelves of the now-defunct MGM for two years), I was filled with a sense of dread. Movies that “sit on shelves” tend to be near-unwatchable train wrecks…but, in this case, Lionsgate was able to purchase the rights to the movie and let it enjoy a wide release so we could all judge for ourselves. I was also nervous about the casting – the biggest name (aside from a key cameo) is Chris Hemsworth who, despite being solid in Thor, remains an unproven Hollywood commodity. And then there was the self-referential “wink wink” tone that the trailer took – as if it was overly impressed by its own cleverness. In my view, that’s what killed the Scream franchise: it isn’t enough to say “look how smart we are because we’re stating what the cliche is right before employing it”; you have to invoke the films that came before – and then explain why the cliches should be funny (or, at minimum, why they exist). Scream merely called out the cliches to get a few cheap laughs. Cabin in the Woods goes further….much, much further. And does the surprising and unthinkable – it explains why the cliches exist in the first place. And the discovery of why these cliched caricatures and scenarios are pervasive throughout horror is an absolute riot to discover.
*Minor Spoilers from here on out*
Unless you’re one of 11 people in the world he who hasn’t seen the trailer, let me break it down for you: five young 20-somethings are going to a “cabin in the woods”. Along the way, they’ll meet a creepy threatening guy who should serve as a warning sign not to tread further; but of course, they do. And once they’re at the cabin which is obviously not a safe place to be, they find a secret basement filled with all sorts of odd items…and the choice of which item they take interest in truly determines the direction of the next hour of the movie.
But those first moments of the film sit counter to this plot (and the trailer gave away this conceit as well…unfortunate but the film wouldn’t have any sense of novelty if it didn’t). Rather than dropping you in on the kids’ lives or the ill-fated trip to the forest, the movie opens at a tech center (with a couple douchebag IT managers chatting about nothing important…it feels like any other day on the job – but these balding hapless chumps are possibly the most important guys on earth). What does a tech center have to do with a remote cursed cabin? Good question…but it drives the entire plot – and connects every scary movie cliche (and, amazingly, every horror icon ever conceived) to a larger ritual with worldwide implications.
The movie succeeds fully because it knows what it is (and what it isn’t). Joss Whedon wrote this film as a comedy rather than a horror movie. And that was a stroke of genius because, despite being VERY gory at times, it never tries to be scary (which would’ve felt cheap). Every harrowing moment of the film is viewed through the eyes of an omniscient network operations center (which wind up being the film’s finest moments). You also can’t really compare Cabin in the Woods to the horror films it invokes. It nods toward many of them…but on its own, is much more a combination of Office Space and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I know – it seems odd to compare a horror film to Willy Wonka but honestly, there are numerous parallels. Throughout Willy Wonka’s running time (the original with Gene Wilder – not that Tim Burton abortion), there is a bizarre, perverse cruelty. Rather than rooting for Charlie, the viewer is invited to root against other children (and laugh at their grim demises). Cabin in the Woods has that as well – you are provided a cross section of people to root for (and against); and when the second act begins and all hell breaks loose (moving from the cabin to the IT center), the best parts of the film finally roll and the movie goes from “silly horror” to all out gross-out comedy.
And yes, there are really no big twists after the first half an hour. The director (and writer) invite you into the film’s big secret early on. Normally, this would prove a catastrophic mistake – but, in doing so, it changes the tone of the film…and allows the viewer to watch the events unfold at an all-knowing level. As the filmgoer, you know what’s going on, even when the poor bastards on screen don’t which proves to be terrific (albeit mean-spirited) fun. And you know, all too well, why the machinations of their terror are so important on a global scale.
Cabin in the Woods isn’t a perfect film…but it’s well intentioned, viciously funny and a visual treat – the second half of the film is worth the price of admission. And, best of all, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever of a sequel.