Loathe them. I am easily the world’s biggest wuss when it comes to watching scary movies. The last one I saw was The Ring, and after that I had a hard time sleeping for a week. Heck, I wouldn’t touch our TV for a few days just because I didn’t want some stringy-haired ghost girl to reach out of the set and suck the life force out of me. So yes, horror and I do not get along well, which is why I surprised myself by even considering seeing The Cabin in the Woods, a horror film from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon.
While I hate horror films, I love the works of Joss Whedon. His brand of wit, awareness, and genre savvy has always resonated with me, be it Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly. If you’ve spent even five minutes listening to the podcast, you’ve probably heard me gush about how well Whedon develops his characters and crafts dialog. You can see my dillema.
My trust in Whedon eventually won out and I finally went to see the film last night. Thankfully for horrorphobes like myself, Cabin in the Woods is one of the few films in the genre I can heartily recommend.
Cabin in the Woods is a rather difficult film to review, not so much for giving away the ending, but for divulging what Whedon and Goddard do with classic horror genre tropes. Do they play them straight? Subvert them? Invert them? They both seem aware that the viewer knows what typically happens in a horror movie. They’re also keenly aware that you’re expecting them to break the rules. The result is a film that manages to keep the viewer guessing. Just as you’re convinced a standard horror cliché is going to come into play, it’s subverted. The instant you think you’ve caught onto a pattern and can see another trope twist coming, it’s played straight. It’s all brilliantly meta. Not only do Whedon and Goddard demonstrate a tremendous amount of savvy towards the genre, they show remarkable awareness about their own styles and methods.
The setup is played somewhat straight, establishing the usual cast of potential victims. You have Dana (Kristen Connolly), the good girl. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athletic looking guy. Jules (Anna Hutchinson), the bad girl. Holden (Jesse Williams) is the smart guy. Or token ethnic guy, depending on how you want to view the standard cast configuration. Then there’s Marty (Fran Kranz), the stoned fool. The merry band of misfits are off to a secluded cabin in the woods where the obligatory creepy gas station attendant offers a dire warning about going to the cabin way out in the middle of nowhere.
It’s about at this point where all bets are off as to what each new scene will do.
I do have to be careful about just what I talk about, because the less you know going into this movie, the better off you are and the more you will enjoy it. Here’s what I can tell you:
- There’s a secret facility underground where people are monitoring the main cast
- There’s something out in the woods that wants to hack up the main cast
- There’s an insanely funny gag prop
That’s about all I can say without taking away the magic of the film.
What is safe to talk about is how the dialog and characterization carries the movie. It’s classic Whedon at work, snappy lines that supplies a refreshing amount of comedy to what looks like a dark and gritty film on the surface. That is one of Cabin’s more pleasant surprises. I lost count of the number of laugh-out-loud moments that served as a wonderful change-of-pace from the suspense and gloom. It’s a contrast that seems like it should be jarring, but in reality it adds the perfect texture to the film.
Like many other Whedon projects, there are some familiar faces from his previous works. Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) and Tom Lenk (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are part of the secret underground facility. Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) plays the perpetually stoned Marty. The cast as a whole are funny and engaging. Perhaps the only exception is Williams’ Holden, who feels a bit flat. I’m not sure if it was how his character was written or his portrayal, but he didn’t exactly stand out performance-wise. Of course, it might just be relative. Performances all around were brilliant in this film.
Joss Whedon said in an interview with Total Film that Cabin is a “loving hate letter” to the genre intended to point out its flaws.
On another level it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be alright but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into Torture Porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.
On a gore and horror level, Cabin is far closer to Scream than it is Hostel. It doesn’t overplay the blood and guts for a cheap shock, instead preferring to build up suspense and keep the viewer guessing. More than that, it’s a demonstration of smarts, wit, and genre savvy that make it a film even horror film wimps like me can love to pieces. It’s a deconstruction that fans of the genre will greatly appreciate. It’s perhaps the most fun movie I’ve seen this year. As the world’s biggest scary movie coward, trust me when I say this is a movie that both fans and non-fans of horror will dig.
Cabin in the Woods earns a score of 4.5/5
Tune in next week as I review another Whedon project, Marvel’s “The Avengers”