Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods shrewdly delivers the goods in horror by concurrently honouring and critiquing what makes the genre (sometimes) great. The film sagely presents all the puzzle pieces, but it doesn’t offer the audience the final vision until the last frames make their blood-stained way across the screen. In between, Goddard provides delighted chestnuts without insulting the characters or the audience.
The Cabin in the Woods was filmed over 2009 in Vancouver, with Joss Whedon writing the screenplay along with Goddard. The two had worked together on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel television shows, while Goddard had written the screenplay for Cloverfield. With this picture, the plan was to “revitalize” the horror genre. Whedon and Goddard wanted to move the goalposts away from torture porn.
The film opens with two technicians (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) getting ready for some sort of operation. They are jokey and casual, but there seems something sinister about their high-tech work. Several other operations appear to be taking place around the world, but we don’t know what’s going on until it is slowly revealed as the plot progresses.
Meanwhile, a group of college students is heading out to a “cabin in the woods” for a vacation. This includes Dana (Kristen Connelly), Jules (Anna Hutchinson), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams), and Marty (Fran Kranz). Each meets the demands of a particular stereotype – and for good reason. When scary things start to happen in the cabin, as they inevitably do, the truth about the operation is revealed.
The Cabin in the Woods is a devilishly cunning motion picture. It mimics and critiques the living hell out of the clichés of the genre, from the presentation of the characters to the seemingly capricious nature of what goes bump in the night. And it does this without resorting to more clichés, astutely giving us characters that have the ability to figure things out, reason and get out alive without making every dumb horror movie choice there is.
In a way, the horror movie is penitence for the sins of youth. This is something I’ve discussed before in other reviews, outlining the morose punishment of the sexually active from the Friday the 13th movies and how the purportedly righteous is commonly rewarded with her life. Almost to a fault, fledgling characters are punished, stalked, dismembered, and tortured. This sort of thing dates back to fables of creatures in forests serving as demonic ways to get youngsters to be good.
Goddard is aware of this and The Cabin in the Woods succeeds because of his love for the genre and cognizance of its faults. Despite the fact that films habitually rely on typecasts and old-fashioned philosophies, like the interminable worship of the Übermensch found in the infinite procession of superhero films, Goddard’s resolve turns this one on its head.
The Cabin in the Woods also has a lot to do with the idea of choice, especially in the boundaries of horror. Do characters have any? Do filmmakers? Are they bound by some abstract code of ethics wherein certain characters must be punished for impulsiveness, much like the Hays Code insisted that women were chastised for cheating on their male counterparts or getting divorced?
Through all the critical examination and philosophical connotations, The Cabin in the Woods also manages to do something few films do: it scares. Perhaps it’s made scarier by the fact that it merrily toys with conventions, but it’s likely made scarier by the fact that it’s damn well done as a horror movie that reaches well beyond the desiccated carcass that most horror movies instinctively settle on.