[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.]
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.
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.
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.
*”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.