Review : Cabin in the Woods
*The end section of this review is separated by a line, as it contains major spoilers*
There are a handful of filmmakers that, as an audience member or fan, you simply don’t consider them past the point of doing absolutely anything they can to ensure a very unique film-going experience. Take for instance at my local theater’s first showing of Cabin in the Woods there was a moment that because of the film screening it occurred in, it felt as though it may have been some top-secret gimmick to be employed in synchronization with the action happening on screen. When a character has just lifted open a fuse box and was about to tinker with its insides and your theater’s lights flicker then go out along with what’s on screen there is this moment, and it is beyond all reasonable logic, where you don’t put that sort of thing past a creation from the brains of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. Let’s just say if that happened in a handful of any other movies, you wouldn’t sit there expecting it to maybe part of the show in an immersive cinema experience sort of way.
It’s because so very little was known about this film before its release that such thoughts are even possible. One of the most recent posters for the film depicted a basic woodland cabin as a twisting puzzle box that revealed no more answers than the very cleverly-edited together previews and that is for the best. I’m not exactly spoiler-averse myself, but when someone says you need to go into this movie knowing as little as possible, listen to them. From the first few moments onward of this long-awaited film (it was shot all the way back in 2009) it’s made very clear that this is will not be a generic horror offering. Throughout the next two hours it’s confirmed that the tropes of the genre only have one place in this film and that’s as a means to be used to tear apart the stale patterns that this genre has operated in freely for years now. This clever, brutal, and bold film does more than give horror a shot in the arm—it throws the gauntlet down in a very apparent manner for fellow horror writers and directors to, as the meme exclaims, ‘come at me bro.’ Especially the bloody balls-out mayhem of the last act where I sat there thinking, ‘…I wouldn’t want to be the guy who sincerely tries to follow this.’
Any fan of Joss Whedon’s work would have no problem finding out why the film works so well. He and Goddard have crafted an excellently-paced script that’s not only got the goods in the scares and thrills department, but it’s also very funny. There are little moments throughout the film that can’t be mentioned in great detail in order to avoid plot spoilers, but they work in a way that would fall flat in less capable hands. Let’s just say you won’t ever look at the ‘creepy old fucker’ who runs the abandoned gas station in the middle of nowhere quite the same way ever again in someone else’s horror film.
Another thing that fans of Whedon count on in any project he’s involved in is that it’s going to have a great cast. Some of the highlights for the cast of Cabin include a pre-Avengers Chris Hemsworth proving in every bit of scene he gets to occupy why he really is a huge star in the making as he deftly handles humor, action, and even an inspiring survival speech. If anyone had their doubts after Thor then this is the perfect chance to see him get to subtle character work with something that on the surface could have been lazily written as the asshole jock character. Don’t be fooled later on when he becomes this cliché (and so well too) as it is all part of the premise and the same goes for the devolution of all the Cabin co-ed characters. Once the premise is known it becomes hard to watch that character transformation, but it’s a talented actor or actress who can go from a fully formed character into the stuff of horror stereotype legend while still keeping the audience on their side.
While all of the Cabin coeds are very good in their roles, it’s Fran Kranz who may find himself on the track to becoming even more of a nerd hero than he may already for fans of his nuanced and criminally underrated work as Topher Brink of Whedon’s Dollhouse series. There is a moment where he is surprisingly Bruce Campbell-esque in this perfect shot where he has to save one of his friends from an unmentionable unnatural harm. It’s this sort of attitude toward character and casting that are always impressive about people like Whedon and the people he works closely with. There was any number of people who probably had a slightly more well-known name or presence that could have played Marty the stoner, but it’s Kranz who perfectly embodies him in a way that could go on to become iconic within the horror film genre. There’s nothing but respect for anyone who casts their characters regardless of some bullshit idea of marquee value and more people need to follow that lead in the film industry.
In typical Whedon-style, there are other alumni of his past works that pop up in the film, one with a major supporting role and the other with a delightful recurring cameo. To me, even though there weren’t any major flaws with the Cabin characters, the film is completely stolen by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Can’t say in what capacity they serve the film, but I’d wager that most people won’t be able to look at either actor the same way after they leave a screening of the movie. Both came to play and that sort of enthusiasm always shows. They also get to handle much of the film’s dark humor and they do so very well without having it come off as an awkward element of the story’s structure.
It should surprise no one that the women are well-handled even though Whedon and Goddard are playing in a genre that typically has a lot of problems with handling its portrayal and writing of female characters. It’s difficult to go into a great amount of detail without spoiling, but they really take the trope of the dumb blond slut for example to such an extreme level during a memorable round of truth or dare that the audience is sure they’re poking fun at anyone who seriously writes this character just like that. There’s also this element of that very scene where the sexual veers quickly into the grotesque that unnerves far more than the later round of vicious sudden attacks against these characters with sharp rusty implements are able to. It gets under one’s skin and that’s a definite accomplishment for any single scene in a horror movie. Not to mention there are moments where women and men are both objectified and for once it’s the female character that gets to do the objectifying and stick with it a little longer than her male counterpart did. Sure there’s a moment with bare breasts later on, but there’s a build up within the context of that unveiling that’s essential to subverting the tropes of the horror genre by first fully embracing them. Not to mention, that the man upstairs behind the dastardly plot against the coeds is in fact a woman (and a great surprise appearance from a well-known actress).
Let’s take a moment away from the Joss adoration to talk Drew Goddard, the man behind the lens for this movie. Some may know him as the man behind Cloverfield, the found-footage style alien monster invasion film that took audiences by storm a few years back. But what Goddard is able to accomplish with Cabin in the Woods is quite the feat as he weaves together two concurrent settings for this storyline in a way that doesn’t lead to a single awkward transition and that’s impressive. Goddard is able to tease out the jump-scares and make them effective when they really do occur. His shooting style is a great complement to the satirical nature of the script as his camera leers over the female form or perfectly whips around a room in a manic breakneck fashion to simulate the panic of the character on-screen as they struggle to simply stay alive during their perilous ordeal. Even the choices of the musical score are excellent jabs at the overly dramatic stings of sound that accompany the suspense and shocks when the threat is nowhere to be seen and then suddenly there they are and it’s far too late for the characters.
Cabin in the Woods probably isn’t going to be a massive smash and it’s for the best. The ending itself is even another way for the filmmakers to buck convention as it states that this isn’t the first in a series if the tickets sell—there likely will be no sequels and that’s as refreshing as anything else in the plot of the film. But for people who get a kick out of seeing an excellent horror/thriller/occult film that uses the tropes of these genres to subvert the expectations and results of what those types of films can be and in such a fresh and insightful way should be in for a real treat with this film. It’s got thrills, humor, and characters you actually care about on both sides so that it actually matters when the blood starts to spill and despite the success of the later Saw movies and other such films, yes that actually does matter before you off trying to impress with the complex death-traps you put these people into. Go into this movie with little info and an open mind and just enjoy this unique ride. Movies like this one don’t come out very often, but when they do they definitely leave a revitalizing impact on not only the genre but the entire pop culture landscape.
This is the segment of the review that couldn’t remain unsaid because if you’re a lifelong Joss fan then you’re going to go through Cabin in the Woods in a slightly different manner than anyone who’s less familiar with his various works. So this is the part where a few points are listed as conversation starters and thought-provokers. It’s also just damn amusing to see these past elements from his work pop up again in this film.
So again, this is the spoilery section, be forewarned and please avoid if you’ve yet to seen the movie.
- The unnamed organization that’s put these twenty-somethings in harm’s way echoes quite a few clandestine shadow groups dealing with matters of the occult. Specifically, the entire operation feels like it’s a project of one of the many branches of the full-service law firm, Wolfram and Hart from Angel. The particular purpose of the activities in the film smack of something they would be involved in.
- These events are also more than slightly reminiscent of the various rituals from shows like Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well. The ancient evil the film seems to be dealing with at first reminds of The First in that whole blood sacrifice way. You can easily imagine someone muttering, ‘from beneath you, it devours’ in reference to the threat. However once the actual situation is given full exposition they’re much more similar to something like Illyria from Angel. The concept of the ‘old Gods’ coming back to rule over Earth except they seem to be in their natural form and not in that of a blue-haired Amy Acker in Hot Topic clothing. Nothing from the promotional materials for the film reveal this element of the film, but when you’re sitting there as it all unfolds it’s all so very Joss Whedon that you wonder why it didn’t seem like the first option.
- The facility in charge of the rituals going off without a hitch doesn’t only seem like a Wolfram and Hart operation. With their methods of surveillance and drug-induced identity manipulation, it has a Dollhouse vibe to it that can’t be ignored. Turning these well-rounded people into controlled ciphers against their will is what so much of the success of their plan relies on.
- There is a highly militarized section of this organization and by the end of the film it feels like The Initiative from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is back in full operation. Security officer Truman feels like he easily could have been a comrade of Riley Finn before that faction went bust. In addition to the fact that the elevator scene of the last act includes various secure cells holding a number of mythological and cryptozoological baddies waiting to be released back into the world much like the Initiative had in its containment of various vampire and demon threats.
- This is less of a reference to Whedon’s past work as it is a love of the energy that propels this movie to its final frame. There’s this undeniable sense of freedom from the constraints of dealing with the limits of television in every single part of the final act. The resulting bloodbath that soaks every square inch of some frames of the film feels like such a euphoric release on the behalf of Whedon and Goddard. There’s a downright giddy joy that emanates from the amount of carnage they can unleash onscreen—almost every single person dies for example it doesn’t matter how big of a name they are or not. By the end of the film, the whole movie feels like such a natural progression for Whedon’s oeuvre so far that it could only feel this cathartic to have that sort of release—it’s hard not to come out of it thinking you just experienced an intense “Jossgasm” of the highest order. Now that he’s taking on The Avengers and who knows what else after that, it’s a perfect bookend to the first half of a career that’s still got so much mind-blowing awesomeness ahead of it.