Just a few weeks back, while reviewing The Hunger Games, Your Humble Correspondent swore up and down that I detest gore and always give slasher movies a wide berth. Well, I guess that we all have to eat our words sometimes. Not only did I go see The Cabin in the Woods on opening day, but I actually had tremendous fun watching it, and recommend that you give it a try even if you think that you don’t like this sort of thing at all.
To explain why, I’m going to have to issue a mild spoiler alert herewith. The advertising campaign for Cabin in the Woods is necessarily extremely misleading, because nearly anything that one can say about the plot beyond “Five youths go to spend a weekend at a remote, spooky house and then all Hell breaks loose” will be interpreted by some viewers as giving away too much. Of course, that description sounds like every one of a couple of hundred lame adolescent torture-porn flicks of the past several decades. So why would you or I want to see it?
Well, Cabin in the Woods is actually high-concept meta-horror, out to turn every crazed-killer cliché in the book on its head. The very triteness of the basic concept is the launch point for an exhilarating cinematic ride that piles trope upon trope of the genre, twists them every which way and then detonates the whole shebang with a colossal dose of the sort of ironic black humor that some of us remember fondly from the days of The Twilight Zone.
Here’s the first spoiler, in which I’ll try not to venture much further than what you can already deduce from the film’s trailers. Before we even meet the five doomed kids – Dana the sensible good girl (Kristen Connolly), Curt the Alpha-male jock (Chris Hemsworth), Jules the dumb slutty girl (Anna Hutchison), Marty the bong-toting slacker (Fran Kranz) and Holden the quiet intellectual (Jesse Williams) – the movie introduces Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as a couple of suits exchanging small talk in a mysterious high-tech facility with lots of screens and consoles. As the vacationers head off in their Winnebago for a weekend of fun, their departure is reported to headquarters by a spy crouching on their roof. Clearly, there is more than a random reason why these youths are about to have a very unpleasant weekend in the country indeed.
It’s appropriate that the most engaging of the five deliberately paper-thin college student characters is a philosophical stoner with a deep distrust of the System and of unseen government or corporate Powers that Be, whom he terms “puppeteers.” For one can easily picture mad cult-fantasy TV genius Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse) and some of his pals slouching around a living room somewhere near LA, getting into a deep THC-fueled discussion about why kids in slasher movies always do the same dumb things: “Why do they go down into the creepy cellar, read the Latin incantation in the occult book out loud, split up when the zombies start chasing them? Why is it always the slutty girl who gets killed first? There must be a deeper explanation, man!”
There is indeed, according to Whedon’s script, and the yarn that he spins – and that frequent Whedon collaborator Drew Goddard (Lost, Cloverfield) directs – explains it all for us, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. There’s even a reason why the kids get stalked by zombies and not some other among dozens of options on the monster trope menu. What that selection will be is, in spoilery fact, the focus of spirited wagering within the puppeteers’ office pool.
But I still haven’t given that much away; we’re only at the end of Act I when the zombies pop out of their graves. The fun really gets into high gear when one of the would-be victims starts finding concrete evidence that everything going on in the cabin and its environs is under surveillance, rather like the Tributes in The Hunger Games. And as you know if you were ever a Twilight Zone fan, puppets are sometimes known to turn against their masters. The grand finale of The Cabin in the Woods unleashes a Destroy-All-Monsters sequence of bedlam so long, loony and over-the-top that I was winded from laughing by the time it finally subsided.
Yes, the movie is unexpectedly funny, especially when the excellent Kranz is front-and-center. It’s loaded with witty throwaway lines that fanboys will be quoting well into the future, although my personal favorite doesn’t work well out of context: the resigned manner in which a certain character says, “Oh, no,” as comprehension dawns on him of the cheesy irony of the manner of his imminent demise. You’ll know it when you get there.
There are also sly textual references aplenty to the genre’s back catalogue that students of horror will love to deconstruct frame-by-frame when the movie comes out on DVD. But you don’t need to have seen many of Cabin’s predecessors to understand enough of the in-jokes to get on with; I’ve seen very few, but I still managed to laugh quite a lot. After all, these movies are all alike, aren’t they? Except for this one…
Although it’s “rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity,” it’s goofy gore that won’t give you nightmares. Think of the defiant Black Knight getting his limbs successively lopped off in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and you’ll get the idea; or the Dan Ackroyd/Albert Brooks “Wanna see something really scary?” skit that opens the movie version of The Twilight Zone. If you could handle either of these, you can handle The Cabin in the Woods. You might as well see it now, because after this, I can’t imagine one more twist that could possibly be added to this played-out genre.