Warning: Please don’t read on unless you have seen “The Cabin in the Woods.” If you are looking for a recommendation, mine is “Go see it!” After you did you can come back here and read this. But don’t spoil yourself the fun of watching it without knowing anything about it. (Avoid trailers and other write-ups, as well.)
I’m not going to recap what happens in “The Cabin in the Woods,” because you’ve seen it, you know what happens. Instead I’m going to tell you why, for me, the film is a full success, a highlight of its genre and just flat-out entertaining as all get out.
I’ve been a fan of Joss Whedon’s work for about as long as he’s been churning it out. He wrote “Cabin” with director and long-time collaborator Drew Goddard, but you can clearly hear his voice, most of all in the scenes featuring Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Whitford has proven himself to be a master of smart, fast and funny dialogue in Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (which is still, and I know I’m alone in this, one of my favorite things to ever appear on television), and he’s a perfect fit for Whedon’s – well – smart, fast and funny dialogue.
Of course Whedon does more than write witty lines. The whole film fits nicely into his larger body of work, always keeping the viewer guessing but intrigued, scared but laughing, thinking but entertained.
I’ve seen “The Cabin in the Woods” twice in the span of a few days, and while I loved it every bit as much the first time, the second really helped me to flesh out why it works so well, and how it transcends a whole genre of film.
Here’s the amazing thing: Knowing what you know from “The Cabin in the Woods,” you can watch almost any other horror film in an entirely different light. Not only cabin-in-the-woods films (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “The Evil Dead,” “Cabin Fever,” “House of the Devil,” “The Shining”) but zombie flicks (“Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later,” “Re-Animator”), slasher flicks (“Halloween,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Alien”), curse horror (“The Ring,” “The Grudge,” “Drag Me to Hell”). The betting board in the control room covers a nice array of possible (and actual) horror films, and even beyond that we get glimpses of monsters destroying cities (“Godzilla,” “The Host,” “Cloverfield”), fiery infernos, war, natural disasters and more. After the “army of nightmares” is released at the end of “Cabin” we even see one person putting a gun to her own head, so psychological horror/madness is accounted for, as well. “It’s different in every culture, and it has changed over the years,” as the director says. (Here’s a pretty thorough list of evil things in “The Cabin in the Wood” with examples of movies they appear in.)
This opens up a whole new way to watch any of these, and by extrapolation, literally every movie ever made. But let’s stay with the core reference, the cabin in the woods. Until the twist at the end you could take the (sort-of-but-not-really) film-within-a-film of “Cabin” and release it on its own without any problems. It’s nothing new, but it works. When I watched the movie for the first time and the bad guys were revealed to be zombies (well, a zombie redneck torture family to be precise) I was a bit disappointed. “That again?” I thought. I honestly expected this film, of which I had heard so many good things, to go a different, less traveled path. But in the context of all of it being nothing more than a day at the office for sacrificers-in-charge Sitterson and Hadley, the predictable summoning of the undead makes perfect sense. (In this movie and every other like it.)
Some critics (including Dana Stevens in her spoiler special) have said they didn’t like how the characters in the scenario are being manipulated into behaving against their will (especially changing their minds from wanting to stay together at all costs to entirely the opposite), and the use of some unexplained chemical to that effect IS an easy out, but it’s one that needs to be there. The “puppeteers” freely admit that they control the game, and the next time you yell at the beautiful blonde going into the dark cellar all alone despite every bit of common sense a person, even one in a horror film, should have, just think of Richard Jenkins absently pushing a button while having much more important things (the wife’s having guests over tonight, again?) on his mind. Yes, it’s not fair, but you’re not watching this to see people not get killed.
“We’re not the only ones watching,” Hadley says, and while HE is talking about the Elder Gods underground, Whedon and Goddard, of course, are talking about us, the viewer. We expect certain things out of these movies. (Which is not to say we aren’t delighted when they are subverted, like in “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Shaun of the Dead” or “Tucker and Dale vs Evil”) I saw the recent remake of “Piranha” the other day and while it is by no means a great film, it is without a question one that knows its audience and delivers exactly what the viewer wants to see. You see each and every bloody death-by-fish coming a nautical mile away, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch. Are the characters making the obviously wrong choice at almost every turn? Of course. And we want them to.
Same goes for the characters in “Cabin.” It is made clear that the five people stuck in the woods do not fall into the five archetypes the Elder Gods want to see sacrificed – The Fool, The Whore, The Scholar, The Athlete and The Virgin. But they’re close enough to work with and with the help of the chem department are pushed over the edge into stereotypicality (or not, in Marty and to a lesser extent Dana’s case). When we watch something like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” do we want the characters to have long discussions about what it all means or – even worse – deciding that maybe spending the weekend at some forsaken, creepy old cabin might not be such a good idea? Of course not. We want them to be killed off, one by one. And that’s what we get.
But back to “The Cabin in the Woods” and why I liked it. It’s fun, most of all. And scary! One of the reasons I watched it again just days after I had first seen it was because I wanted to share the experience of seeing it with others. I enjoy a good scare, but nothing beats my best friend reacting to scary movies, one hand shielding her eyes, the other digging into the arm of whoever happens to be sitting next to her. It’s like instant force feedback whenever something bad happens on screen – or is about to happen.
I’ve mentioned Jenkins and Whitford’s performances already, but praise also belongs to Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz as Dana and Marty, who bust out of their predetermined stereotypes in a convincing and fun way. I liked Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”), too. (There’s something about his voice I just can’t resist…)
And then we have the big finale, when all hell literally breaks loose. How could you not love that? Seriously, if you didn’t love that, please tell me why in the comments. I can only imagine you are… blind, maybe? And all the noise just confused you? In that case have someone describe it to you. You’re gonna love it!
I’m being snide, of course. But I do love “The Cabin in the Woods” and I suspect that if you don’t, you might come around to it if you watch it again with an open mind.