Five college kids visit a secluded cabin that doesn’t go quite as expected, for them or for us.
The Cabin in the Woods wants to be a horror film, a comedy, and (as writer-producer Joss Whedon puts it) “a very loving hate-letter” all at once. While it plays up the fanboy angle to a dizzying degree, it still manages to be hugely entertaining for the less initiated. The audience may not be sure what references are being made or whether to laugh or scream (or both), but they sure know they’re involved in something pretty sinister.
It begins with the familiar premise of a group of college kids on a weekend getaway in the woods, terrorized by supernatural creatures and killed off one-by-one. We know from the promotional material that the occupants soon realize they’re being set-up by an unknown force, monitored through hundreds of cameras and manipulated from afar. While the trailers are surprisingly spoiler-free (very rare for a horror film these days), they make the tone of the film seem much more slasher and much less farce than what we’re given.
A lot of the buzz surrounding this film has tossed around terms like “deconstructive”, “subversive”, “meta”, and I suppose those are accurate. More than any other film genre, horror is blatantly self-referential even when it’s not trying to be. Cabin has forefathers not only in actual horror films through Hollywood’s heyday, monster movies through slasher flicks, torture porn and beyond, but in a long line of films that intentionally deconstruct the genre: Evil Dead was loving homage, Scream spelled out the rules and gave us a playbook, Scary Movie squeezed every cliche dry for a laugh. One can imagine Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard turning the Horror bag upside-down and shaking it until every last object had fallen out, stringing the pieces back together as they found them.
The result is a messy little film, full of half-explored ends and convoluted developments, but it flies so deliriously off the rails that we hardly notice. At first, tropes are exposed and archetypes are explained, and since we’re well seasoned to the idea of Horror Film 101, we’re lead to believe that that’s it. It’s not. This is frenetically manic storytelling, and even when certain scenes stumble (unnecessary exposition as to how the cabin occupants are manipulated; death scenes that are more baffling than terrifying), we’re inclined to forgive Whedon and Goddard for infusing so much love into it and taking so many risks.
Watching The Cabin in the Woods in a crowded theater, I was reminded of when I saw Kill Bill during its opening weekend. It was fall of 2003, and the audience appeared totally confused, not sure what they had gotten themselves into, baffled as to if and when they should laugh. By the time Kill Bill, Vol 2 came out the following spring, the audience had clearly been initiated and fully understood what Tarantino was going for, laughing at each bizarre twist. A trait true to most cult classics is that it sometimes takes a while for them to set in for audiences, and I suspect that Cabin will be cherished for a long, long time, by horror buffs and average filmgoers alike.
Score: 8.5 out of 10