With Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have crafted the new yardstick by which all horror films released in its wake will be judged. That analogy’s somewhat mild and unseasoned. More accurately, they’ve saturation bombed the genre with barb-filled ordnance wrapped up in one enormous love letter, launching a payload containing their affections for horror along with pointed criticisms of the very milieu in which they’re working. Think Scream, but with broader implications about the entire breadth of horror cinema, and also smarter, scarier, tauter, more insightful by far, and thoroughly relevant– impressive considering that, thanks to financial kerfuffles causing an indefinitely delayed release, Cabin has languished on MGM’s shelves since being completed in 2009*.
Time has done nothing to dilute the film’s relevance or dull its sharp edges, though. Cabin‘s stuffed with keen observations and a deep-rooted understanding of horror from all angles. Serving as a satire of genre tropes and cliches, it also revels in them; in point of fact the film employs them as its very foundation. If the basic set-up of Goddard’s movie doesn’t sound familiar to your ears, you’re not much of a horror fan: five young people travel to a remote cabin (in the woods) for a weekend of partying (which means all you think it means) and before long find themselves in a struggle for their very lives against a ravenous band of zombies laying siege to their timber-forged accommodations. As the film’s tagline muses, you’ve heard this story before. Right?
But if we’ve already seen this type of horror film, we’ve seen it with the curtain firmly closed. Here, Goddard and Whedon are very much throwing it back, and what we see on the other side is shocking and appalling: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Maybe “confusing” is more accurate; we’re introduced to them bantering back and forth over coffee as they labor to an at first opaque end in a state-of-the-art scientific facility. It becomes clear quite quickly, though, that like us they’re an audience to the impending slaughter, save for the godlike power they wield over the events unfolding in the cabin. With an array of panels, buttons, switches, and monitors at their disposal, these two laboratory drones run the entire show nearly from start to finish; they dose the teens with chemicals and drugs which influence stupid behaviors, and they send the aforementioned undead out to the cabin to shed some blood.
For what purpose? That‘s the trick here. Jenkins’ and Whitford’s involvement here doesn’t wade into spoiler territory. In fact, we meet them before we meet our victims du jour, and the nature of their work comprises as much of the narrative as the horror occurring in the eponymous cabin. It’s what Goddard’s film eventually leads up to that represents the true “twist”, but even then Cabin in the Woods doesn’t run for an hour and change only to spend the last thirty minutes upending everything we’ve seen happen up to that final act. Cabin is a movie of escalation; it builds, brick by brick, to one of the most glorious bits of genre subversion in recent memory, but it never cheats the audience by violently pulling the rug out from underneath them. Honesty, after all, remains the best policy.
Goddard’s and Whedon’s refreshing candor marks one of the film’s most important aspects, but more valuable than that is the clear sincerity of their love for horror. Cabin in the Woods brims over with an effusive, infectious adoration for horror movies in every way; even at its most bitingly trenchant, not a moment goes by where either Goddard or Whedon displays rank dislike of the genre or its tropes. At most, they’re contemptuous of the direction horror has taken in the last decade, veering into a realm of disposable cinema where the films are strictly maximized as product (rather than as art) and subsequently have devolved into strictly base entertainment. What’s exciting about the latest in torture porn (an accurate label, no matter how much Eli Roth decries it) and by-the-numbers found footage? Why does any of this matter if we don’t care about any of it?
Those last bits are absolutely essential to what Goddard and Whedon are aiming for here. More than anything, they get what makes horror fun, and next to all of its higher pursuits Cabin in the Woods is precisely that: a reminder of why we love horror. I think the term “deconstruction” gets thrown around a lot when speaking about films of Cabin‘s persuasion (by others and by myself, of course), and while I won’t say the word doesn’t fit in discussions of Goddard’s movie I also happen to think that it’s somewhat besides the point. Being more exact, Cabin deconstructs horror precisely by being as unabashedly fun as it is. It’s a movie that wants us to consider why we watch horror movies in the first place, an argument fully in favor of the instinctual before the intellectual and an appeal to the grisly joys of watching people get graphically dismembered for our enjoyment. Whether we watch these pictures to sate our own blood lust, or to stave off the horrors of reality, there’s a reason why we strike out to consume these movies in the first place.
And yet with the release of Cabin in the Woods, there’s an undeniable sense that the horror gauntlet has been thrown down. Whatever Goddard meant with his movie, the introduction of a horror film into the mainstream made with superlative craftsmanship, wit, and intelligence feels very much like a challenge to other filmmakers to do better. There’s an abundance of discussion to be had and analysis to be made over Cabin‘s core meanings, and if this review skirts around those qualities it’s only because they speak too much to the utterly invigorating experience of discovering them for oneself. But there’s one thing that’s for sure: Cabin in the Woods is an absolute masterclass in horror cinema, a movie that you’ll want to watch again immediately after the credits roll in your first viewing, and one of the best movies 2012 has offered up for our judgment to date.
*I’m genuinely curious at people’s reactions to this slice of fact. Are audiences going to scratch their heads at seeing the god of thunder playing potential victim X in a backwoods slasher movie?