The geeks are already out in force praising the cleverness of the Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard creation Cabin in the Woods. This isn’t surprising given Whedon’s pedigree; since the Buffy/Angel days he merely has to sign his name to something and a certain fan-base will immediately pull out their wallet, regardless of quality. What is surprising is that this not-so-subtle deconstruction (for once that’s literally the right term) of teen horror films will likely work even better for the undemanding multiplex crowds it seems to critique.
The word is that Woods is unique and there’s never been anything like it. That’s not quite true (Waxwork anyone?) but what sets Woods apart is the energy and affection with which it goes about its task. There’s a welcoming feeling of no trope left behind, and even a fair-weather horror fan will feel included. Best of all, it works as exactly the kind of movie it pretends to be, even as it unearths a few fresh gasps of creativity from a now moldering subgenre.
Lets start with those college kids, headed up to a cousin’s cabin in the woods for the usual weekend of drugs, sex and…studying? Yes, the brawny jock (Chris Hemsworth) has an extreme case of book smarts, the virginal beauty (Kristen Connolly) is mild-mannered, save for her not-so-virginal fling with a professor; the dumb blond (Anna Hutchison) wasn’t either until today, when she dyed her hair on a whim; the ‘smart guy’ (Jesse Williams) still has six pack abs and seemingly remembers his tenth-grade Latin lessons on command; the stoner (Fran Kranz), he’s about as you’d imagine, although he’s far more paranoid than is usual for a guy carrying a retractable bong that transforms into a coffee mug. The plot defines them as types, but we also get a sense of them as people. It’s easy to like them, to root for them as they walk into the unknown, and to fear for them when stuff starts crawling out of the forest to get them.
That generic premise is the vehicle, not the journey, which goes into spaces not likely to be guessed even by those who have seen the spoiler trailers. I’ll speak no more of the plot specifics, except to briefly mention two more characters; Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), two cynical office workers who discuss their weekends over the water cooler and then go to work inside a compound that looks like the base-camp for ‘The Initiative’ in Buffy’s fourth season. Sitterson and Hadley and their team participate in scenes that shake up the narrative, break up the atmosphere, and add a layer of absurdity and snark that purposefully leaks off the screen and into the audience. Even when the monsters are outpacing the heroes, and blood and viscera are decorating the cabin walls or forest floor, it’s guaranteed that CITW has always something a little bit more sophisticated going on underneath because of their involvement.
I’ve seen Cabin twice now, and enjoyed it both times in different ways. Drew Goddard drops the hyperactive shaky-cam style of Cloverfield for a more traditional approach that cheerfully combines the ambience of 80s b-movies with graphic novel flourishes; ominous, mucky figures rise from the lake, there’s a cluttered cellar that seems like the antique shop from hell, and another chamber looks like the set of a game-show if it were hosted by ancient druids. He and co-scripter Whedon have much fun pointedly teasing the audience in the beginning, but this isn’t a smarmy, hollow game of guess-the-reference; they dutifully build their scenario into a real story that suggests the elastic dream logic of horror films. There’s no single twist to be spoiled, but instead a constantly escalating discovery that begins with the first frame and still manages to surprise us by the last..
Woods uses the awareness of its audience not as a sword to dice its premise to bits, but as a kind of rejuvenating balm which massages the set pieces to just the level of freshness needed to make them interesting in and of themselves. When was the last time you cared about what happened to the pot head when he wanders off to ‘read a book with pictures’ or feel genuine unease when the bimbo puts herself in a compromising position? In the end, Woods goes further than Scream and The Faculty because it removes those know-it-all characters constantly referencing horror films amidst the scary situations. Instead, it shares a common thread with the superior Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon; these characters never mention a single film reference, presumably because horror films do not exist in their universe. It makes for an interesting distinction, and one that Woods explores in greater detail than Mask.
The acting is strong for a film like this; Hemsworth gives the jock an easy, affable nature; Connelly plays the survivor girl as a kind of sweet sad-sack; give it up for Hutchinson and Krantz who take the roles of slut and stoner and make them the most engaging of the college kids. Hutchinson for her part shows real spark and energy; watch her make-out session with a mounted trophy and tell me that in another time and place, she wouldn’t have made a great vampire slayer. Jenkins and Whitford are fantastic, and bring the skill of versatile character actors to parts that don’t necessarily require them. There’s a guest cameo in the final third that is perfectly inspired for many reasons.
Cabin in the Woods is never quite as smart as it thinks it is, and occasionally it undercuts the scares for the delirious carnival atmosphere it eventually adopts. There’s a dues ex machina in the end that is implausible, but it opens on an ending so ridiculously apocalyptic that all is forgiven. There’s also a tantalizing whisp of an idea regarding the ruthlessness of horror directors and their target audience, which deserves more emphasis, particularly the notoriously kill-happy Whedon. Still, this is one of the best horror films of its kind, and that’s largely because it understands and appreciates the value of the seemingly tedious traits of b-movie mythos. When lesser movies slog forward with a just-do-it dullness, Whedon and Godard dive in with a gleeful ‘Let’s get this party started!’