REVIEW: Cabin in the Woods Finds Something New — and Brilliant — in the Genre Wilderness
When I was in college, I once went on a weekend trip with my two roommates to Cape Cod, where someone had scrounged up a summer home belonging to a family friend who was willing to let us stay for a few days. The owners were in the middle of renovating the place, so instead of windows there were just sheets of plastic that bulged in and out with the wind. Half the rooms didn't have electricity, and we had to go to the tap outside to get water — but hey, someone was letting us stay in their house in a scenic location far from our shabby apartment near campus, and for free. No one was complaining.
Except that it got dark, and the fact that we were out in the woods down a narrow driveway removed from the road with nothing sheltering us from the outside but transparent tarps (just the thing for wrapping up dead bodies) started to seem a little spooky. We were three young women huddling around one of the few working lamps in a house in the middle of nowhere, and I started to reflect on the fact that if we were in a movie, we'd for sure get murdered in a few minutes by someone with chainsaws for hands or something. And then the friend who'd set this up, a sporty, outgoing environmentalist who'd definitely outlive me in any theoretical slasher flick, mentioned offhand (she wasn't joking) that the owners of the house had mentioned that if we saw a guy in the woods outside in the middle of the night, it was probably their friend Bill, who was helping with the remodeling and sometimes stayed in their shed.
What's my point? My point is that you don't want me telling you about the premise for The Cabin in the Woods, so instead I'm inflicting on you this personal story of a cabin in some woods (spoilers: we then drove into town and ate seafood). It's true that the film, which was written by geek demigod Joss Whedon with Drew Goddard (the latter of whom served as director) is much more fun to watch if you don't know anything about the plot going in. But I'm concerned that all this trumpeting about how sensitive the movie is to being disrupted by oversharing will set up expectations for something filled with reversals and silly twists, when in fact your enjoyment will be derived from an appreciation for how clever its concept is. Goddard and Whedon have devised a meta-movie about horror tropes that comments on its genre without foregoing a plot or characters of its own — it's funny and scary enough to please the deeply fannish, while being sufficiently quick and smart to entertain those less inclined to dork out on the many horror in-jokes in store.
Suffice it to say, the film introduces two groups of characters. The first, made up of Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker, Brian White and others, work in a compound somewhere seemingly official, though not so official that they don't sexually harass each other for fun, bitch about their spouses and run office pools. The point of the film is how they fit together with the second group, which consists of five college students headed out for a weekend away at, yes, a cabin in the woods. There's good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly), her friend Jules (Anna Hutchison) and Jules's football-player boyfriend Kurt (Chris Hemsworth), Kurt's studious teammate Holden (Jesse Williams) and their stoner friend Marty (Fran Kranz, who steal the show).
The five fit these types from afar, but don't up close. Kurt and Jules aren't just a jock and his blonde bimbo girlfriend — when he teases her about bringing textbooks along, they fall into a pitch-perfect reenactment of the old "I learned it by watching you!" anti-drug PSA. Dana's getting over a complicated break-up, Holden's kind and perceptive, and Marty sees a lot more than you'd expect through his haze of pot smoke. The relationship of our expectations of characters and plot developments to the genre and why we keep coming back for more even when we think we know what's going to happen is examined throughout the movie, which plays off all the old slasher standards while being about something very different.
Making a film that depends on an audience's recognition of other films is a tricky thing — not just because it presumes existing knowledge, but also because meta-humor often just stops at making a reference instead of actually going on to do something with it. When you look at Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's _____ Movie series of (for the most part) awful spoofs, most don't get further than a "Remember this? How about this? You saw this one, right?" Cabin in the Woods touches on everything from characters who have sex being doomed to J-horror to classic monsters, but it is also questions, for the most part not in a scolding way (the slight but discernible touch of that is the film's only real downside), the reasons why we like watching these scenarios unfold so much that we've worn the ideas out like an overused record. Cabin in the Woods does what Scream only halfway managed, which was to find something new by looking back at the familiar — and at least in Whedon's world, the geeky ones are never first on the chopping block.