Between trailers that give away the whole plot, a dearth of original stories, and the stream-of-conscience babbling of social media, it’s hard for a movie to surprise you anymore. So it is with great excitement that I ask you to keep whatever you hear about The Cabin in the Woods to a minimum. Watch the trailer, read spoiler-free reviews (such as this one) and plug your ears as soon as anyone starts talking about it in detail. Do that, and you’re in for one of the most surprising, entertaining and just plain fun movie experiences to come along in years.
You might not assume that, given the succinctness of the title, which provides about as much background info as you’ll need. The film follows five college kids who escape the city to spend a weekend at a remote, foliage-bound retreat. “It doesn’t even show up on the GPS,” says one, while stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) rolls joints in the back of their RV. Good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly) is among the vacationers, having been roped into the trip as an excuse to meet hunky new guy Holden (Jesse Williams). Isolated location? Check. Drugs? Check. Sex? Check. You know the drill.
And that’s the point. If you’re betting there’s a pit stop at a derelict gas station run by a backwoods yokel who warns the kids “don’t go up to that cabin,” congratulations, you’re part of the film’s target demographic; people overly tired of the horror genre. The “teens going on vacation to a secluded location, only to fall prey to malevolent forces” playbook is on full, gleeful display here, featuring familiar character archetypes stuck in an ominous cabin that’s just begging for a coat of red paint.
What you might not expect are the little differences that accrue as we head toward the inevitable killing spree. Despite their inherent disposability, the characters have a charm and likeability that’s unusual for your average slasher-movie fodder. That jock Curt (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth) knows his way around a sociology textbook, as well as a football field, is among the first of many, many, tweaks to the established canon.
It all starts to make sense once you know that the film was co-written and produced by Joss Whedon. The creator of cult-favourites Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly is celebrated for his ability to craft interesting characters through witty and relatable dialogue, something that has survived the big screen transition. That such a grounded voice is behind next month’s big-budget comic book extravaganza, The Avengers, would seem odd, had he not already proven himself a master at repurposing genre conventions, as he did for superheroes in the web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
Cloverfield writer Drew Goddard makes his directorial debut here (and also has a co-writing credit), and if these two films share a theme, it’s blowing stuff up. The difference is that The Cabin in the Woods is about mass-destruction of ideas; the filmmakers have set out to destroy or exploit everything you’ve come to expect from scary movies, and they take to the task with style and verve. Though the influx of camera-winking and self-reference in the genre’s recent past has given it some new life (Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil comically spun the same subset of horror last year), Whedon and Goddard take it to such an extreme that the sly wink is more like a proudly flying middle finger.
You could argue that they’re more interested in giving cheeky commentary on established nail-biter tropes than in coming up with real scares of their own, and you’d be right. Fear takes a backseat here, but in its place is an infectious lunacy. If you’ve watched the trailer, you’ll know that there’s more to this cabin than initially appears, as glimpses of the condemned under surveillance hint at a conspiratorial element to the slaughter. It’s no matter to learn that criminally underrated comedic talents Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are among those keeping watch. Who they are, and what their job is, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Their story runs parallel to that of the beset teens, but early impressions of the voyeurs would have you think they’re living in a totally different world. Again, this is all intentional, as what starts as a simple story quickly spirals into territory of such grand, bizarre scope, that it makes the destruction of New York in Cloverfield look like small potatoes. There’s an actual mythology at play here, one that just barely keeps the story afloat, but also filters the entire genre through a new, wonderfully skewed lens. Nearly every conceivable take on horror gets a shout-out here, with clear references to The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, even Lovecraft, to name a meagre few. Some shots are so packed with Easter eggs and detail, you’ll wish the theatre had a pause button.
While Goddard’s technical quibbles arise from aping his inspirations a bit too closely (the lighting can be poor and the CGI deserved a budget befitting its ambition), those with any appreciation for gore, monsters or just a good scare, owe it to themselves to see this movie. From its charming beginnings to its balls-out insane third act (complete with an ingeniously twisted finale), you’ll be hard pressed to find a film in recent memory that’s as inventive, or flat-out fun, as The Cabin in the Woods.
4 out of 5