The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Director: Drew Goddard
Screenwriters: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchinson, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford
The Cabin in the Woods, from long-time friends and writing partners Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, is an unholy hybrid of The Evil Dead and The Truman Show that seemed somewhat novel upon its release in 2012 before extremely meta horror films were a dime a dozen. Many films, TV series and video games (notably branching narrative horror game ‘Until Dawn’) owe a great debt to this film, which was a minor-key hit at the time and remains a cult classic today. So a decade on, how well does The Cabin in the Woods still play?
We all know this story, five college friends go away for the weekend to a remote cabin because that’s what kids do in horror movies. Little does this group know that their every movement is being monitored and their actions manipulated towards committing fatal mistakes by sinister forces extremely well-versed in what scares us.
For the most part, Cabin is an absolute riot, consistently fun, funny and scary, and is incredibly playful in its deconstruction of best-known horror conventions, particularly those that were dominant in the 1970s and 80s (mostly those re-hashed time and time again in slasher movie franchises).
Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford make a great comedy double act as a pair of senior technicians working for a company that simulates horror movie scenarios for the purpose of performing a dark ritual. The group of young adults who take an ill-advised trip to an isolated cabin in the woods are all of a certain character archetype, a fact that becomes particularly relevant in the finale, but are all given a bit of a twist (the handsome blonde jock Curt and his hot dyed-blonde girlfriend Jules played by Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchinson, for instance, actually have brains). Kristen Connolly’s Dana is the decent and empathetic central protagonist and Jesse Williams is Holden the sensitive academic in a sports star’s body, but the real casting highlight is Fran Kranz who completely steals the show as one of the great all-time movie stoners Marty, whose spring-loaded metal bong and unique drug-addled world logic not only aids in its survival, but provides some of the film’s best jokes.
Drew Goddard made his feature film directorial debut here, but Joss Whedon’s fingerprints are all over it, which may, especially now, have an impact on your enjoyment of the thing. Whedon’s writing is as try-hard verbose as usual with a few memorable one-liners (“they have streets paved with actual street”, “Alright, I’m drawin’ a line in the f*ckin’ sand: do not read the Latin!”), and the film as a whole has about the same giddy entertainment value as much of his earlier work.
The cleverest and most lasting idea brought to the table, aside from the sci-fi bureaucracy staging an office death pool to stave off boredom, is how this bureaucracy artificially influence these well-rounded, clear-headed protagonists to act more like stupid slasher movie characters. This is where the Truman Show influence really comes in (as well as having a supporting character called, wouldn’t you guess it, Truman).
Joss Whedon’s influence is unfortunately felt in areas aside from the dialogue and he does occasionally write in scenes that, while they point out the inherent sexism-bordering-on-misogyny of many horror films Cabin is referencing, still goes ahead and recreates versions of the exact same scenes, the only difference being that they point out what they’re doing.
After an intriguing build and liberal clues about the real goings on are scattered around, the final act of the film throws absolutely everything at the walls. Here Whedon and Goddard look like they’re abandoning their convictions of what their film should be, modest and low-key smart, and trying to deliver all-out action on a scale the film really doesn’t have a budget for. The visuals in this portion are hugely imaginative, and there’s a reason the moment when the lifts open and all hell breaks loose is still talked about, but everything below the surface becomes a little hard to make out at this point. The final revelation of the film just doesn’t stick the landing either, and sets the stage for a lazy superstar cameo that really belongs in another genre.
If the original studio MGM wasn’t going through such hard times, we might have seen Cabin before Chris Hemsworth became a star with Thor, but the film’s delay may have done it some favours in some regards. This film would doubtless have been longer and more elaborate if it was made today, or if those bankrolling it hadn’t run out of money, and that would be completely unnecessary. Whatever other gripes you might have with the film, whether or not you jive with its tone, there’s not an ounce of fat on it and it most certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome at 95 minutes.
If Whedon and Goddard had just stuck to their guns and produced a tonally consistent finale worthy of the wit, creativity and no-nonsense pacing of the rest of the film, then The Cabin in the Woods might have been a classic of postmodern cinema. As it is, it’s still a lot of fun, but self-aware genre cinema has come a lot further as another ten years have passed.