THE CABIN IN THE WOODS Review

by     Posted 2 years, 140 days ago

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[This review is a re-post of my review from the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. The Cabin in the Woods opens in wide release tomorrow.]

The Cabin in the Woods is one of the sharpest satires of the horror genre ever made. Great satire can only come from intelligent, witty, and devious minds. Director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon have those minds. They have dissected not just the “cabin in the woods” sub-genre, but the entire horror genre, and most importantly, our enjoyment of it. Rather than just point out the tired clichés we all know, Goddard and Whedon use the deconstruction as a starting point rather than a dull summation. It is an exciting, exhilarating, and bloody means to a thoughtful, rewarding, and bloody end.

[Whedon and Goddard have tried to make a point of hiding what makes The Cabin in the Woods more than a "Cabin in the Woods"-movie, and they hope that the secrecy will entice you. If you are already enticed and don't wish to know more, stop reading this review. If you continue, I won't give away any major spoilers, but writing about Cabin in the Woods means revealing (and celebrating) its hook.

There. That's your warning.]

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The movie opens not with the stock college kids happily unaware of their inevitable doom, but a couple of mission control-type guys, Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), who are happily aware of what the future holds for the stock college kids. The cute and nerdy Dana (Kristen Connolly), her hot bimbo friend Jules (Anna Hutchinson), Jules’ handsome jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), their also-handsome friend Holden (Jesse Williams), and the lovable stoner buddy Marty (Fran Kranz) are hapless pawns in a very well-funded and deeply disturbing game run by Hadley, Sitterson, and all of their co-workers. We pause for a moment to wonder how the people at Evil Mission Control* can be so utterly dehumanized and play with the horrible fate that will befall these innocent co-eds…

And then a moment later we realize we’re Hadley and Sitterson.

Satire, when done correctly, isn’t a direct blow. It isn’t a complaint and it isn’t a screed. It’s using the power of humor to illustrate an idea that hasn’t yet been verbalized in an effective manner. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the horror genre can point out its weak and tired tropes. Scream did it back in 1995 for slasher movies albeit in a less eloquent, more Jamie-Kennedy-yelling-tropes-directly-at-the-audience manner. Goddard and Whedon have cast their gaze to all supernatural horror—whether it takes place near a cabin in the woods or not—and made an argument about how the genre has not only stagnated, but how we as an audience are complicit in that stagnation.

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With The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard and Whedon have made a strong rebuke against lazy storytelling by combining the lazy storytellers and lazy audiences into one body (the people at Evil Mission Control) and showing both the arbitrary nature of the plot elements (interchangeable menaces like creepy children and ghouls and clowns) and the glee and comfort we take in predictability of the structure (teens must die, they must die gruesomely, they have to die in particular order, etc). When we see everyone betting on the kids’ lives, we see ourselves. We’re purposely desensitizing ourselves to horror, and horror movies are letting us, so why are we watching them other than bloodlust? Aren’t horror movies supposed to be scary?

This kind of brilliant deconstruction could only have been done by people who know not only the horror genre inside and out, but understand storytelling inside and out. If they so chose, Goddard and Whedon could take their argument about horror movies and apply it to romantic comedies or costume dramas. Horror is just the most fun, colorful, and culturally immediate vehicle for their point about thoughtless, plug-and-play stories. Somewhere along the way, supernatural-menace-kills-innocent-teens became commonplace and filmmakers stopped asking the all important question: “Why?” Whedon and Goddard are pulling back the curtain to show how the genre’s stopped working, and how pointing out its failings might challenge other storytellers to work harder and put some thought behind their plot rather than pull from the “Killer” and “Kill-Order” randomizer.

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And the reveal of this formula never feels accusatory. Nothing in The Cabin in the Woods is designed to make you feel bad about liking horror movies. The story gives you that moment of pause, and then Goddard and Whedon win you over with wit and charm. They made sure that no one in the movie was brazenly unlikable. The co-eds don’t get rich, detailed backstories, but we don’t want them to die, and part of that comes from the nice performances of the younger cast members. But the scene stealers are Whitford and Jenkins. I have to admit that I would love to see a weekly series starring Whitford and Jenkins that takes place in Evil Mission Control even though I know it would undermine the entire point of the film. It’s not because Whitford and Jenkins give showy performances; it’s because both actors find a way to take the banality of evil and make it entertaining.

We’ve become far too comfortable and in too many ways. We’ve taken the horror genre—a genre meant to surprise and startle—and defanged it. Now we congratulate ourselves about how smart we are and pretend like the latest arbitrary set-up and killer are somehow more or less worthwhile than the last arbitrary set-up and killer. We’ve become lazy and apathetic by getting what we want whenever we want it**. We’ve taken less than what we can get and The Cabin in the Woods is a wake-up call for audiences to demand something better. Few filmmakers will devise a horror film as blazingly original, remarkably intelligent, and painfully funny as The Cabin in the Woods, but it’s time for them to at least start trying.

Rating: A

*”Evil Mission Control” is my name for it; the movie has no official name for their organization.

**The Cabin in the Woods also has some thoughts on the OnDemand age and the dehumanizing power of technology; Whedon and Goddard’s point is rendered even more powerful when you consider that the movie was finished and stuck on the shelf over two years ago.

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  • Brandon

    Is A or A+ your highest rating?

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  • fireclown

    Liked the movie (a lot), but the subtext is getting on my nerves. If Wheadon thinks horror movies have gotten dumb, then he can damned well take his talent (and influence) to add some new material into an admittedly stagnating genre instead of preaching.

    • Isabel

      I suppose I just could have said, “Exactly,” as opposed to writing my own diatribe. :)

  • manicmoviegoer

    I am so glad friends went to see this before me. I was hoping that for once we would have a really great horror film without the typical tits and ass shots, scantly dressed bimbo’s or sexually demented freak enuendo. I guess that was too much to expect once again. I get it that most believe “sex” sells, but not all of us get off on it. It’s been my experience with every movie/tv show that if one has to resort to including nudity of any kind, provocavative dress or a sexual act/enuendo the movie/ tv show isnt worth viewing or buying. The movie would of/could of been great without it – unfortunately the film producer didn’t have enough faith in himself and his work to see/know that. Better luck with the next one..

  • manicmoviegoer

    I am so glad friends went to see “Cabin in the Woods” before me. I was hoping that for once we would have a really great horror film without the typical tits and ass shots, scantly dressed bimbo’s or sexually demented freak enuendo. I guess that was too much to expect once again. I get it that most believe “sex” sells, but not all of us get off on it. It’s been my experience with every movie/tv show that if one has to resort to including nudity of any kind, provocavative dress or a sexual act/enuendo the movie/ tv show isnt worth viewing or buying. The movie would of/could of been great without it – unfortunately the film producer didn’t have enough faith in himself and his work to see/know that. Better luck with the next one..

    • Christopher S

      You totally do not get the point of the movie.

      • Mary

        I know right, if manicmoviegoer actually read the post they would have realized what the whole point of the movie was. I guess ignorance is just too prominent in everyone now. Maybe they will have better luck next time reading an article before posting a ridiculously retarded comment.

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  • Isabel

    The film was a send-up of everything discussed in Scream, but played out, with zombies (ha ha! zombies! the kids love zombies these days! it’s meta meta). Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I enjoyed formula horror, because, yes, it’s a satire, but I still sat through the same old supernatural slasher spliced with “it’s for the elder gods, manipulation twist”. I kept waiting for another big reveal, but there wasn’t one. In the end, the selfish stoner & complacent virgin decided to say “fuck you,” to everyone on earth? They were willing to let their families suffer horrible, painful deaths, and let hell on earth reign? Just so Joss and David could say, “see! The virgin/stock character doesn’t save the day! Mwah ha ha ha!” I couldn’t wrap my head around that choice, while staying in the confines of the plot. Outside, in satire land, it makes sense, but after that great battle, within the plot, the pot head was a good guy, who seemed like he’d be willing to die in order to save humanity.
    I am not the complacent viewer this film is aimed at, and I must admit, I don’t understand how The Cabin in the Woods can “never feel(s) accusatory. Nothing in The Cabin in the Woods is designed to make you feel bad about liking horror movies”, while simultaneously making “an argument about how the genre has not only stagnated, but how we as an audience are complicit in that stagnation.” How can “the viewer” make better viewing selections, if the films aren’t there to select? Boycott? Good luck. Watch foreign horror that requires reading? Ha. There’s a reason Let Me In was remade, along with A Tale of Two Sisters, etc., ad nauseum. The general population doesn’t want smart. They want candy.
    Whedon & co. pulled it off, because you can still turn your brain off and enjoy their film, if it’s your genre. I honestly doubt a large percentage of viewers understood what they were watching. Films that wrap their intelligence like a doggie treat with a worm medicine center do well, because the lowest and highest common denominator in horror fandom get something from it.
    I largely stopped watching straight up horror right around The Ring/Grudge Japanese horror craze. I don’t enjoy being scared, although I do love being thrilled. My “horror films” are the kind horror lovers/reviewers find the film “not scary”, “not gory”, more of a “thriller” and “smart/clever, etc.”, and even then, I accidentally end up watching films that make me want to scrub my brain (the original Funny Games is a perfect example. My head is messed up enough; I don’t need to go there.
    The Cabin in the Woods was over-hyped. If the pre-release propaganda wasn’t so “this-is-the-most-brilliant-thing-ever!”, perhaps I would have felt differently, but I doubt it. I loved Buffy, and have watched every episode many,many times, and I think Joss Whedon is a cool guy, with an amazing brain, but Cabin in the Woods, tricked me into over-thinking an ultimately hollow, and non-proactive statement piece. It breaks down a sub-genre within horror, and asks the viewer to do something about this nonsense, without offering any suggestions on how to do it. I assume most of the people who watched and even pumped their fists, at the “brilliance” of it all, will just line up for the next slasher film without a blink.

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