A Not-Altogether-Glowing Review of The Cabin in the Woods
Hot on the heels of Margaret comes the release of another long-delayed film, The Cabin in the Woods. It is written by Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel etc.) and Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, several episodes of Buffy and Angel), and is directed by Goddard. It was filmed in 2009, scheduled for release in early 2010, but delayed so that MGM could convert the film into 3D. When MGM went bankrupt, the film sat on the shelf until Lionsgate bought it in 2011. Thankfully, the 3D conversion has been abandoned and it being released as intended, in good old-fashioned 2D.
The Cabin in the Woods opens with a very familiar premise – 5 young adults head to a remote location for a fun-filled holiday. In this case, the location is a woodland cabin owned by a cousin of one of the protagonists. There is the shy protagonist (Kristen Connolly), her outgoing best friend (Anna Hutchison), the friend’s sporty boyfriend (Chris Hemsworth), the soft-spoken love interest (Jesse Williams) and the harmless stoner (Fran Kranz). From the start, we know that a shady organisation is monitoring their movements and are somehow going to affect their holiday plans, probably for the worse. An effective early shot establishes that there is some kind of electric force-field surrounding the area, and there are cameras set up in each room of the cabin.
The set-up is fantastic, introducing us to five characters who almost fit into established types, but feel more fleshed-out and real than the usual horror characters. Goddard and Whedon knowingly reference existing horror tropes, including the creepy yokel who gives them directions, and pay homage to The Evil Dead on several occasions, including the design of the cabin. We know that this isn’t going to play out as expected, but it is not initially clear what Goddard and Whedon have up their sleeves. When the gang venture into the cabin’s basement and read a mysterious passage in Latin, we get an idea of what is in store.
This is Goddard’s directorial debut and he seems comfortable behind the camera, keeping things visually interesting without being flashy (until the climax that is, when he pulls out a few welcome tricks). Another strength is the casting – I really like that the five leads are virtual-unknowns (although Chris Hemsworth has become somewhat more famous since the film was shot!). The leads are all strong, although Fran Kranz tends to steal the scenes, as he did on Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse. The other casting highlight is the duo of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as two of the people who are somehow controlling this situation. They are both superb, and Whitford in particular seems like he was born to speak Whedon’s snappy dialogue. It is also nice to see Whedon regulars Amy Acker and Tom Lenk pop up as staff members at the mysterious organisation.
Overall, this is a fun exercise in genre subversion, although it doesn’t always gel. The script seems to be attempting several interesting things at once and they don’t always mix, which results in a strange tension. Since my issues with the film all relate to the development of the plot, I will explore these further in the spoiler section below.
The Cabin in the Woods occupies a peculiar place between two types of horror: grounded, character-based horror; and teen slashers, in which we usually root for the killer as much as the victims. It reflects the first type in that we become attached to the characters, and don’t want to see them die (which can be used effectively, in such films as Carrie, Ginger Snaps and May). It reflects the second type in the way that characters are cruelly dispatched and are merely puppets in a larger plan that is outside their control (such as in most teen slasher franchises).
In The Cabin in the Woods, the tension between these tones feels uneasy; when the characters start dying, it isn’t fun, and Goddard and Whedon seem a little unsure of whether it is supposed to be. They seem to be simultaneously commenting on how strange it is that horror audiences enjoy seeing people get brutally killed, while delivering exactly that. I didn’t want to see these characters killed, and didn’t feel that the meta-layer made their deaths interesting.
There are other moments in the script in which the genre subversion is much more successful. In one, the ‘puppeteers’ manage to orchestrate a topless scene. We then cut to Whitford and Jenkins watching, bored by the formula. This shot effectively undermines just how pathetic the topless achievement is. A similar moment features a shot of the same girl dancing provocatively, then cuts to Whitford and Jenkins doing a daggy middle-aged man dance to the same music, which promptly kills the mood.
Perhaps my favourite element of the film is the treatment of the stoner character, played by Kranz. Stoners in horror films are always killed, usually because their drug-induced haze renders them utterly useless. It is just one of the ways in which slasher films punish those who ‘transgress’. In The Cabin in the Woods, the stoner character is the most observant and insightful, and ultimately emerges as something of a hero. It is even suggested that his pot produced a strange resistance to the pheromones that are being used to affect the kids’ actions. I found this to be incredibly refreshing, and genuinely surprising.
My biggest complaint with the film is with the primary villains in the middle act – a resurrected zombie family. These plodding bores are incredibly dull and unimaginative, and the kill scenes play out just as you would expect from a standard zombie film. Most frustratingly, the film even tells us that they were only one option for what could have been used to kill the kids. The puppeteers run through a list of alternatives that all sound infinitely more interesting. A character even comments that the zombie family are fairly standard “but have a 100% success rate.” The manner of deaths in the middle act is clearly not particularly important to Goddard and Whedon; it is simply a way to get rid of characters and push the survivors into the climactic set-piece. And of course, they are saving certain elements for the climax. But for me, the result was that the middle section became a little tedious. Sure, they kept cutting back to the real villains – puppeteers, but this didn’t make the zombie deaths any less tired.
I enjoyed the final act, which is endearing silly and undeniably imaginative. The downside is that the film abandons character in favour of spectacle, and the climax is curiously emotionless. It is fun, sure, but I can’t imagine much of the audience caring about the outcome.
The Cabin in the Woods is something of a love/hate letter to the genre. It pays direct homage to some horror tropes, and effectively subverts others. In comparison to other genre-bending horrors, it isn’t scary like Scream or Attack the Block, nor is it emotionally rich like Shaun of the Dead. But it is incredibly funny, which is a huge benefit, and that alone makes it worth seeing. Goddard and Whedon have crafted an uneven but entertaining experience, and if you’re a horror fan, it is definitely recommended.