Sunday, August 25, 2013

Prediction #2: The Cabin in the Woods

Film: The Cabin in the Woods
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players.

Genres get stale. When that happens, eventually someone who genuinely loves that genre will attempt to do something about it by trying to reinvent the genre. When the horror genre became more and more torture porn, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon created The Cabin in the Woods, which follows the conventions of horror film while simultaneously playing with those same conventions.

The set-up is a familiar one. Five friends have the opportunity to spend a weekend at a remote cabin in the middle of the woods, completely cut off from the rest of the world. No internet, no cell service, nothing. These five are the slutty Jules (Anna Hutchison), her jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the relatively innocent Dana (Kristen Connolly), her potential scholarly paramour Holden (Jesse Williams), and the perpetually stoned Marty (Fran Kranz). The five set off in an RV, encounter a creepy old man at a gas station (Tim De Zarn), and eventually reach the disturbing and completely isolated cabin.

Once there, things seem extremely strange, almost as if they are being controlled by someone else. During a game of truth or dare, the trapdoor into the basement pops open, and the five descend. The room is littered with strange artifacts, and each person seems entranced or enamored of one of them. Finally, Dana begins reading out of an old diary. When she chants the incantation at the end of a passage, a group of torture-obsessed zombies arise out of the ground and begin hunting our hapless students.

Okay, all pretty standard horror movie stuff. In fact, this is straight out of Evil Dead as anyone with any horror knowledge will know. But there’s something much more going on here. Throughout this opening sequence setting up the monsters, we also spend a good deal of time with Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) in a strange facility that appears in some way to be controlling the potential victims and the creatures they encounter. And this is where I have a quandary as a reviewer and critic. I’d love to go into more detail here, but the reality of the situation is so damnably inventive that I’d rather not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film.

Here’s the thing that really makes this work, and it’s something I don’t get to say very often in the context of a horror film: The Cabin in the Woods is really smart. Since it was made in large part in reaction to torture porn films that feature a parade of dumb people walking into dumb situations and getting ripped apart by something nasty, something more is needed. We still get people being ripped apart by something nasty (it is a horror film, after all), but the entire context of the film is a smart one. Not only does the over-arching story of the facility make sense in the context of the film, it also manages to put a bunch of other horror films into context as well, and does so brilliantly. Like any good genre re-write (like Scream), The Cabin in the Woods not only uses the conventions of the genre, it plays with them, defines them, explains them, and then breaks them in interesting and fun ways.

It’s also the sort of film that rewards the astute and careful viewer and fan of the genre with its references to other films. In addition to the obvious nod to Evil Dead, there are direct references to that movie as well as Hellraiser, Ringu and a number of others. I’m certain I missed a bunch of references here, some of which I’ll spot on a rewatch. Again, this is a smart film, and this is just more evidence of it. The references are often subtle (although not always) and never detract from the basic premise presented to us.

For non-genre fans, I suppose there’s not a lot here to recommend. For the typical viewer who watches horror movies only when forced to and then through fingers covering his or her eyes, this is nothing more than just another scary, gory film in a world filled with them. For the fan of the genre, though, The Cabin in the Woods is nothing short of a revelation of what the genre is capable of being—smart, funny, bloody as hell, and genuinely scary in places—and sometimes all of that at once.

The only films of the last couple of decades that play this well with the horror genre are the aforementioned Scream and the little-known and sadly underviewed Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. All three manage to bend the standard tropes of horror into something rich and strange without losing the core reason why people who are horror fans love it in the first place.

In short, if you’re a horror fan, you’re doing yourself a major disservice if you avoid watching this. Track it down and revel in the joy of it.

Final note: I have hopes that The Cabin in the Woods may appear in the 10th edition of The Book, but those hopes are not very high. Looking through The List in its many varied stages, horror is one of the most under-represented genres out there. Great scary films of the current century--The Devil’s Backbone, 28 Days Later, El Orfanto, Ju-On are ignored completely, not even showing up for a cup of coffee as being worthy for a single year. My guess is that this one will suffer the same fate, being shoved to the side not because it isn’t worthy, but because the listmaker(s) have decided that the genre itself is of such little value.

Why to watch The Cabin in the Woods: It’s a complete rewrite of the horror genre.
Why not to watch: It’s far gorier than you might expect going in.


  1. Whoo! I absolutely adore this movie. After time, it pushed past Seven Psychopaths as my favorite movie of that year, because it's become one of my all-time favorite movies itself.

  2. I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon and I will watch anything he has a hand in, even if it's just a co-writing credit like on this film. Just like you could pick out a lot of horror movie references, I could pick out "Whedonisms" scattered through the movie. Despite the gore, I liked this film for the humor and story. I also liked how the various roles in the film represent the roles in the making of a movie itself.

    You may remember that I included this in my Horror Comedies category about four months back. You left a comment, but you said you hadn't seen it yet, so I don't think you would have read what I had in my spoiler section in the post. That's where I discussed the characters and the movie makers they represented. Here it is again if you skipped that part:

    And to think that the studio left this on the shelf for a couple years and probably only released it because Hemsworth got attention for being in Thor.

  3. @Nick--boy, do I understand why you like this one. I ran out and bought it on Blu-Ray a couple of days later. It's officially the first Blu-Ray I've ever watched.

    @Chip--I left you a new comment. I can see your interpretation of the meta roles of all the players. I'm not 100% sure that it's an intended interpretation, but it is a fun one.

    Your point about it sitting on a shelf for years is a good one. Why not release it straight to DVD if they didn't have faith in it? That, and I just don't understand movie executives sometimes. Then again, I also understand that I'm not a typical film viewer, and the wants and desires of a collection of random goofs will always count more than my opinion.

    1. First, if you have the BD then check out the commentary. Whedon and Goddard point out quite a bit in the film.

      Second, studio execs have almost never been able to figure out what to do with Whedon's works. He's always working on multiple levels and I think it just plain confuses them. Here are just a few examples:

      1. His script for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie was taken away from him and turned into a comedy. He disowned it, but got to do his vision with the TV series of the same name. It was a mid-season replacement on the fifth place network (The WB) based on a failed movie...and it became a huge hit with fans. It is one of the very rare times that a TV spinoff of a movie is considered the much better of the two. More than one publication referred to it as the best show on television during its run.

      2. After two very successful shows on "minor" networks, FOX has him do Firefly - which comments on how many sci-fi movies are really just westerns by making it a literal western in space. FOX doesn't like his two hour pilot that sets up the story, introduces all the characters, and has a fantastic setup for the series, so they just don't broadcast it. They instead start with the second episode so no one knows who the hell anyone is. Then they show episodes out of order so that the story makes no sense from week to week. Naturally the show gets low ratings so they cancel it - and then Whedon turns it into a fantastic theatrical movie named Serenity.

      3. FOX hires him again to do another TV show - Dollhouse. They once again don't like his pilot, but this time they don't even let him shoot it. Instead they take the show away from him and turn what is intended to be a dark comment on society into Fantasy Island. Ratings are horrible, so they turn the show back over to his control, but too late to save it.

      4. While all this is going on DC has hired Whedon to write and direct a Wonder Woman movie. After two years in development hell they decide that Whedon just doesn't have what it takes to make a big superhero movie and the entire project is scrapped. Fast forward a few years and Whedon does The Avengers, the third highest grossing movie of all time, and the best superhero movie yet made.

      When Whedon and Goddard did The Cabin in the Woods it was actually just more of the same. Fans "get" Whedon, but there's something in studio execs that just plain doesn't.

    2. Right. Wouldn't it be nice if they figured out from track record, though? There are a bunch of people who will go see anything with his name attached to it. Release his stuff.

      Oh, and you didn't mention Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog, which is genius.

    3. "There are a bunch of people who will go see anything with his name attached to it."

      That's me.

      In addition to The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon's Serenity was postponed twice before it was released in the dead of September and his Much Ado About Nothing received pretty much only arthouse showings and nothing more. And the latter was despite his track record with The Avengers.

      I love Dr. Horrible, too. Whedon's got time to kill because of a writers' strike so what does he do? Calls some friends together, writes this with his brothers and one of their girlfriends (now wife) and does pretty much the first internet serial that reached widespread consciousness. By the way, it's Joss Whedon's brother Jed and Jed's wife Maurissa (two of the Dr. Horrible writers) that will be the main writers for the coming Avengers TV spinoff Agents of Shield.

      Not to keep spamming you, but here's what I had to say on Dr. Horrible:

      I love the song Everyone's a Hero in Their Own Way that gets sung by Captain Hammer. And here's some fans "badhorsing" Felicia Day:

      And while I'm in a "brain half asleep, free association mode" if you've never encountered Felicia Day's internet serial The Guild it's definitely worth checking out.

  4. Oh, I definitely second listening to the Whedon/Godard commentary track. It's probably one of my favorite commentary tracks ever. It's seriously great.