Five college kids scoot off to a remote woodland cabin for a weekend break, where, after the discovery of a rum diary in the creepy basement and the unwise uttering of some ominous Latin scrawlings, things swiftly turn horrific. That’s what happens. As for why and how, well, that’s a whole other story...
At first glance, it's all very been there, gouged that, torn the tight-fitting T-shirt: a dusty, tree-hugged habitation distinctly reminiscent of the home of Evil Dead’s supernatural atrocities. A quintet of youngbloods who swiftly nestle into hoary archetypes: jock, joker, sensitive guy, good girl, slut. A threatening redneck gas-station clerk, happy to impolitely usher these unwitting “lambs” to “the killing floor” up that dark, snaking dirt-track. Yes, it’s all very Fisher-Price My First American Horror Movie.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that.
If you’ve seen the trailer (which you probably shouldn’t have), you’ll already know this. Even if you haven’t, the names attached should provide a whopping great clue: Joss Whedon, he behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, produces and co-writes. Drew Goddard, Whedon’s Buffy/Angel compadre as well as scripter on Alias, Lost and Cloverfield, directs and co-writes. Together and separately, Whedon and Goddard revel in toying with audience expectation, messing with archetypes, and taking genres, chewing them up (while impressively managing to avoid biting that tongue in their cheeks) then spitting them back out again in some glisteningly new, irreverent, fan-pleasing form. And this is precisely what they do with The Cabin In The Woods, a movie which, thanks to the inconvenient bankruptcy of MGM, arrives via a different studio and roughly 18 months late. Fortunately, that has done little to harm its freshness. Like his peer and friend-in-law J. J. Abrams, Whedon’s been sure to keep this baby shrinkwrapped.
Now: this is the part where the more sensitive-to-spoiler reader is best advised to move along. The Cabin In The Woods is, without doubt, a dish best served raw. That said, for the remaining 471 words, we’ll not be breaking the rule-of-thumb that describing anything revealed during a film’s first 20 minutes can’t be strictly termed spoilerific. All good? Let’s move on.
The fact that The Cabin In The Woods is indeed a full-blown meta-horror is suggested mere seconds after the credits start, when blood-red etchings of Old Testament nastiness suddenly slam-cut into a pleasant, colour-saturated landscape scene overlaid with the words, “Enjoy a fresh cup of coffee.” The string-stabs of the score give way to a pair of career-weary white-collar wonks (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford and the ever-excellent Richard Jenkins) talking shop next to a caffeine dispenser in a spacious facility which looks not unlike one of Dr. Evil’s bases, or the kind of place you’d accidentally super-advance chimpanzee evolution. It’s not entirely clear what they’re talking about (except in hindsight), but the “key scenario” to which Jenkins pointedly refers obviously has something to do with the road trip that the aforementioned college kids (including Thor Himself, Chris Hemsworth) are about to take.
The Cabin In The Woods is less a tale with a WTF twist, more a slow-reveal OMG mystery as the worlds (please don’t take that word literally) of the kids and the wonks come together — or rather, as the barriers between them are revealed then removed. For the most part it’s a hoot, tailor-made for those out there who like to whoop at the kills rather than vicariously drench themselves in primal terror. Yet it does lack the strong characters and appealing sweetness of recent meta-horror Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, Goddard and Whedon dehumanising their principals a little too efficiently. And it isn’t quite as sharp as Wes Craven’s mommy of the subgenre, Scream (or, for that matter, his New Nightmare). There is a pleasing zip to the script, which serves up a great speakerphone gag and a memorable scene in which a college girl makes out with a taxidermised wolf’s head. But the ultimate reveal isn’t as smart as it could have been, dragging the concept back into convention rather than boosting it up onto an entirely new level.
Even so, Goddard and Whedon reverse-engineer virtually every cliché with crowdpleasing glee, delivering an astonishingly nutso, gore-slappy final-act crescendo which barely leaves any staple of the supernatural horror flick unpoked. In one sense, you could say its closing gambit does for this genre what The Expendables did for muscleman/machine-gun action. Except The Expendables took itself just a bit seriously. The Cabin In The Woods, for better or for worse, most certainly does not.
Part Evil Dead, part The Truman Show, part Arthur Christmas... For horror hounds who love a larf, and those of us who always wondered exactly what that dry-ice stuff that rises out of the forest-floor moss is. A fun ride — but not quite a Scream.