SXSW: Meta-Horror Cabin in the Woods Dismembers, Deconstructs the Genre (Spoilers Redacted)
Talking about Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s savvy and surprising genre deconstruction Cabin in the Woods, the opening night film of SXSW 2012, is a tricky thing partly because nobody involved wants any part of the film spoiled for their opening weekend audience and also, more importantly, because those surprises really are best left discovered by virgin eyes. So rest assured: All spoilery plot details, character developments, casting choices, kills, and surprises that follow in this piece have been redacted for the preservation of discovery, leaving only all the vital bits of information up for discussion. Like, after filming in 2009 and being delayed for so long that star Chris Hemsworth is now kind of famous, is Cabin in the Woods actually any good?
The quick and easy answer is (mostly) yes, though folks who rooted out early-early word on the mysterious meta-horror pic already know that nothing but raves came from an unofficial unveiling – call it a test run in friendly waters – at last winter’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin. But Friday at SXSW Cabin in the Woods had its true blue world premiere, confirming those early rumblings: It’s smart, fresh, and utterly Whedonesque, even if its ultimate point is more muddled and incomplete than profound.
The basic plot setup is as follows: Five attractive college kids embark on a weekend getaway in the woods at a lakeside cabin, each repping a different classic horror movie type. There’s Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the jock; Jules (Anna Hutchison), his blonde girlfriend; Dana (Kristen Connolly), the average-but-extraordinary in a secretly-stronger-than-she-thinks kind of final girl way; Holden (Jesse Williams), Curt’s good looking friend/ Dana’s new love interest; and Marty (Fran Kranz), their stoner pal. Once at the cabin, the gang is beset by [redacted] and [redacted] ensues, in keeping with every horror movie ever made.
We get to know these doomed coeds as they go through the requisite horror movie paces, ignorant to the dangers that await – the awkward/menacing brush with a [redacted], the predictable descent into the darkened [redacted] filled with [redacted] and [redacted] and [redacted], the moonlit rendezvous in the uninhabited backwoods where there surely aren’t any [redacted] lying in wait… and here, something wonderful happens. We learn that there’s more to these stock dead teenager types than expected – for example, [redacted] is more [redacted] than he seems, and [redacted] only recently [redacted] --adding subtle layers of sophistication to our understanding of why it is we, or anyone, expects these kids to behave according to type to begin with.
And yet there’s even more going on here than meets the eye. Unbeknownst to the gang they’ve entered a [redacted] controlled by a pair of jaded [redacted] played by [redacted] and [redacted], who run a [redacted] that manipulates every bit of [redacted] with elements like [redacted] and [redacted]. Part [redacted], part [redacted], they’re also voyeurs in this game, watching our heroes hurtle through scenarios straight out of horror classics from the obvious influencers ([redacted]) to the more heady ([redacted])..
Of course, [redacted] isn’t going down without a fight. And the movie, co-written by Whedon and Goddard, isn’t letting its audience go without at least one more major, mind-blowing shake-up, which is when chaos really reigns, literally and conceptually. The film is at its cleverest when it’s peeling away layers to turn clichés on their head, and it turns out that isn’t just confined to the kids in the cabin in the woods; Whedon and Goddard aren’t just having a fun little go at tired horror movie conventions -- they’re trying to nuke the entire genre so it can be restarted anew.
But amusing as the film is when subverting horror clichés, it loses steam and focus in its final act. Characters that had been developing in refreshingly dimensional ways get short shrift as their journeys come to abrupt ends, as if Whedon and Goddard had been so busy turning over concepts they forgot that every story needs to end well, too. Themes of faith and religion hinted at throughout the film give way to a disappointingly uninspired new mythology and an ending that is, perhaps, pointedly meaningless in many ways and more than a little nihilistic. Whedon and Goddard seem to be suggesting that they have made what should be the last and perhaps greatest horror movie ever made, at least in this generation of self-aware, referential, overstimulated mass media. The way things end in this ultimate smartypants, knowing, deconstructed, playfully reverential horror movie – which is just as much about watching horror movies as it is making them – they’ve essentially dropped the mic but are also trying to close the lid shut on the genre as it stands.
Ultimately it’s a ride that deep-thinking horror fans will probably love, average moviegoers should be tickled (or possibly confused) by, and Whedon-watchers will continue to worship him for on account of it fits in his wheelhouse of eye-winking, wholesomely aware fantasy-comedy and yet marks a step outside his norm. Goddard acquits himself well in his feature directing debut, though he does struggle to juggle all the pieces and bring it all home. What begins as a clever excursion into simple, familiar territory expands exponentially until everything’s been razed, as one character suggests, to pave the way for the next wave – a fascinating declaration to end on, in the least. But then where do we go next?
Cabin in the Woods will be released on April 13.