Eeegyahh! Zombie rednecks!

Kept on the shelf for three years amid the turmoil of MGM’s financial woes, the Joss (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) Whedon-scripted Cabin in the Woods finally arrives in theaters fresh-faced and a little bit sassy. Dusting off the tired tropes of the teen slasher picture and knowingly reconfiguring them into a spryly amusing black comedy, Cabin is more funny than scary, but it has just enough of a grisly edge to keep the stakes elevated between laughs while building to a crazy and grimly humorous finale.

All the familiar elements are here: the isolated party spot (looking inauspiciously like the cabin in Evil Dead), the young and attractive partiers, the menacing local who presages doom, the creepy cellar, the drinking full of foreboding artifacts, the game of truth or dare, the sex and finally the ghastly murders and bloody havoc, in this case wreaked by a zombie redneck torture family.

From the very start though, something isn’t quite right. The victims seem to fit into the standard archetypes – there is Dana “the Virgin” (Kristen Connolly), Jules “the Whore” (Anna Hutchison), Curt “the Jock” (Chris Hemsworth), Holden “the Academic”‘ (Jesse Williams) and Marty “the Fool” (Fran Kranz) – but these clearly aren’t your typical stupid teens. They’re close enough for government work and horror films, but you know right away this isn’t going to be quite the film you might be expecting. And then there is Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading) who get most of the best lines, but who don’t at all fit the slasher film mold. Who they are and what they’re doing is pretty quickly revealed, but this is a film about which the less said the better. The pleasures are in the reveal.

In the process of unpacking its secrets, The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t revolutionize horror films so much as it breathes a last gasp of entertaining life into a moribund arm of the genre before putting it to death once and for all. A revolution would imply there is somewhere to go from here, but this film (amusingly) doesn’t even leave room for the usual sequel. In fact, it’s really much more of a comedy than a horror film. There are scares, but they’re sporadic and never sustained with an kind of intensity. Only the most easily frightened will be traumatized in any way. What you have instead is dialogue that is as smart and funny as you’d expect from a Whedon script and a story that is twisty enough to keep you guessing until the end exactly how it’s all going to play out. The young cast is also very likeable (especially funny is Fran Kranz as the shaggy stoner Marty) and you actually regret each death. The losses are almost moving and that’s a rarity for these types of films.

The only real drawback to this otherwise entertaining film is that it doesn’t really add up to much for all its genre busting. The classic black comedies have a satiric edge and something to say, but The Cabin in the Woods is more interested in simply making you laugh. It opens the door to a sort of commentary on the teen experience, but it disappointingly never quite walks through. Having said that, it’s the difference between a great movie and simply a very good one. Even if it ultimately lacks a certain gravity, it entertains from start to finish and sometimes that’s enough.

8 Responses to “The Cabin in the Woods (2012)”

  1. I’m largely in agreement, and at fours stars am only a half star higher than you on it. I agree the comedy mitigates against any resonating horror, though there are some horrific moments. But a great deal of imagination is at play here, and the film cries out for a second viewing.

  2. I just wish it had been a little deeper. Not that I’m expecting anything earth shattering from the genre, but there was a lot of room for… something. I don’t know. But Whedon and Co seemed more interested in pure entertainment. In that department they succeeded, but I wished for a little more.

  3. I didn’t get the sense that Goddard/Whedon were at all interested in saying anything about the teen experience (Whedon probably already said everything he wanted to say about that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The Cabin in the Woods is basically Whedon and Goddard taking the piss out of horror-genre conventions, and doing it in a way that I do think adds up to something: a self-aware horror film that criticizes the audience’s deep need to have the usual genre clichés reinforced in film after film. If anything, I see it as something of a work of film criticism in the guise of a big-studio horror blockbuster.

  4. Upon further review, I think you’re right about their intentions, but that’s why the movie didn’t ultimately resonate with me all that much. I’ve never been crazy about most of the teen slasher genre in the first place, so having the piss taken out of the conventions doesn’t really speak to me other than as a work of entertainment. It lacks a certain bite.

  5. Kenji, I agree that maybe that is what they were intending to do but it felt like ground that has been covered before. There wasn’t much more in their meta-critique of horror film conventions that wasn’t in the Scream series, and the Scream films have been around over 15 years. Breaking things down by slut/virgin/jock/nerd/brain etc has become a cliche now. I expected/hoped the film would up-end that at some point and it never bothered to.

    I still enjoyed the humor. There were a lot of great jokes in Cabin and some very funny visuals, as well as some apt homages to modern horror classics. But beyond that, it didn’t offer me much of anything new, and coming from these two I expected/hoped for something a bit more astute.

  6. This one was a disappointment for me. I’ve never been a Whedon fan– to this day I still more or less hate “Buffy”, but I had grown to appreciate “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” after a while. Maybe it’s just that I don’t share the affinity for all these horror and monster tropes, and maybe it’s just because I feel as though the puzzle-film mechanics of the story have already been done to death in other genres (and to a certain extent, even horror itself, with “Scream” and some of Craven’s past work). I mean, some of it is clever enough, and the whole thing definitely improves the deeper we get past the “Evil Dead” cabin and into the conspiracy, but making so much of the mystery rather obvious from the beginning is kind of a double-edged sword– it keeps the story somewhat interesting by making it apparent how different it is from strict formula, but also makes it incredibly predictable (I’d figured out most of the story about five minutes in) and in the end only calls to attention how ultimately formulaic it really is.

    Again, maybe I’d be more forgiving if I had the same passion for horror that makes up so much of the Whedon fanbase, or if I didn’t find the way he writes his characters anything other than exponentially insufferable, or if the script had been given to a director who knows how to visualize more than just acceptable (Goddard’s a step up from Whedon in that department, but that’s saying very little). It also might’ve helped if I hadn’t had the world’s biggest middle aged Whedon fanboy sitting behind me in the theater, laughing and clapping out loud (and alone) at regular and inconsequential intervals.

  7. I think I’m mostly biased and bothered by all horror remakes. I love seeing a different spin on things, (especially from credible people like Joss Whedon), but in all honesty it largely ends up being a disservice to the original.

  8. I’m kind of torn on that subject. In general, I think remakes are a bad idea, but if you’re going to do one, I almost think you might as well go crazy and do something completely different. After all, the original still exists.

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