Joss Whedon’s and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods is a compelling example as to why spoilers are terrible and you should avoid them, because going into a movie completely cold only to have the plot totally shock you is one of the best sensations in the world.
So with that in mind, this review contains MASSIVE SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t ruin it for yourself. I’m serious, now. Don’t do it.
Five college friends (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams) decide to go have a sexy vacation at the Old Buckner Lodge way up in yonder mountains, where there are no phone lines, no cell reception, no neighbors and no paved roads. But why? Why do college kids do this sort of thing when nine times out of ten they just end up getting slaughtered by some supernatural entity? What is wrong with them? Why don’t they ever learn!?
And there’s an answer for that. As it turns out, every single horror movie scenario ever conceived has been a carefully executed sacrificial ritual, conducted by a mysterious global organization tasked with preventing elder gods from rising and ushering in Armageddon. But the college kids don’t know that. Behind the scenes, a pair of operators (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) and a humongous staff of technicians in a control room drolly stage a horrible fate for our five… “heroes” (?). Their job isn’t a simple one, though, as everything has to follow a specific formula or else all Hell will break loose. Like, for real.
I stumbled into Cabin in the Woods while I was bored on my day off and wanted to see a horror movie; any horror movie. The TV spots made it look like a rip-off of Evil Dead at best, but shit, I own a box set of all nine Puppet Master movies. I’m not very discriminating when it comes to what horror movies I watch. But going into the theater with a very specific (and low) expectation was the ideal mind frame, as what I got in return was a brilliantly written and staged meta-textual commentary on the horror industry as a whole, behaving as both a critical jab at how formulaic the genre is and how and why it can never change, and as an adoring love letter to that genre, reveling in as many clichés and references possible through sharp dialogue, plotting and so many hidden Easter eggs that this is MUST BUY Blu-ray material.
When the actual plot of the film became apparent (and it is somewhat spoon-fed to you, as it takes its time revealing the true extent of the organization’s purpose), I began trying to think of what the overall picture reminded me of. At first, I thought it was a case of Evil Dead meets Cube with some Waxworks thrown in at the end.
But that’s stupid. I was being stupid.
What Cabin in the Woods really amounts to is that it is the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? of the horror movie industry. Just as Roger Rabbit explained that all cartoon characters coexist in the real world where their antics are carefully staged by a film crew, likewise does Cabin in the Woods explain that all horror movie characters and archetypes coexist in the real world where their mayhem is carefully staged by a crew of technicians. On that guiding principle, the two movies are very much the same, and it is because of that novel concept that the two films are both amazing to behold.
The scenes set in the control room present the situation as a typical 9 to 5 day job where everyone is in “cubicle dress code” and they treat their work the same way you’d treat your TPS reports. Lots of water cooler talk dots the sequences, but the subjects are all about horror movies and their various tropes. There is a carefully considered explanation for every cliché you’ve ever seen, from the “harbinger” (the creepy old timer who warns them dang city kids ta stay away frum dat cabin cuz it’s hainted) to exactly how and why five normal kids can suddenly transform into such convenient societal stereotypes (the athlete, the scholar, the fool, the virgin and the whore). And why does the virgin always get to make it to the end, anyway?
Writers Whedon and Goddard work each of those concepts into the script, building this bizarre alternate reality that sticks to its own rules. And what’s best about it all is that the whole thing is really, really clever. The operators have this wonderful banter amongst each other and the office room antics are some incredibly dark but gut-busting comedy. This is just a very smartly written movie that dissects the genre and gives you everything you love about it in a single, solitary dose.
The finale is one of the most insane and jaw-dropping sequences ever put to film. God, I hope you aren’t letting me spoil this for you. Basically, when all the horror movie monsters are let loose on the office building, it is utter carnage of the highest order and one of the most entertaining things I have ever seen. Director Goddard lets fly with the details—and I’m talking “blink and you’ll miss it” stuff—that fills up the whole screen. Every manner of movie monster is present and you really have to study what’s going on to try and catch them all, as well as plenty of funny jokes (the intern’s final words). Like I said, I need this thing on Blu-ray yesterday.
I suppose if there is anything that could have made Cabin in the Woods just that much better, would have been if they’d been able to license the actual horror movie icons for the finale. I’m 100% satisfied with the myriad parodies and legal approximations they conceived (many of which are so original and creepy that they could carry their own movies), but how kick ass would it have been if Freddy, Jason, Pinhead, Chucky and all the rest were taking part in that rampage? Again, it would’ve really gone full Roger Rabbit. But like I said, this is in no way, shape or form a deal-breaker and I think most horror fans will have just as much fun figuring out which homage corresponds to which character (there are some great doppelgangers of the “Gremlins”, “Ghoulies” and “Critters” archetype dubbed “Dismemberment Goblins”).
Cabin in the Woods is quite frankly one of the most innovative and original horror films I have seen in years. It’s a high concept take on the genre as a whole and one any horror fan should be able to appreciate.
Grade: A (as in, “And now every time I see the end of a Friday the 13th movie, all I’ll be able to imagine is that somewhere some assholes are popping champagne and sending Jason back to his glass box”.)