“The Cabin In The Woods” begins exactly like every other slasher picture in history with broad, nondescript teenaged character types gearing themselves up for an unexpected night of massacre and terror. There’s the strapping jock (Chris Hemsworth, or Thor to his close friends), the promiscuous blonde (Anna Hutchison), the virtuous brunette (Kristen Connolly), the scholarly intellectual (Jesse Williams), and the narcotic-smoking comic relief (Fran Kranz) who carries around a coffee thermos that conveniently folds out like a handheld telescope into a tall smoking apparatus.
All five of them set off in an RV heading to a secluded lakehouse that looks remarkably similar, even identical, to the one in “Evil Dead II,” right down to the ominously placed cellar door in the floorboard that can open by itself. “Maybe the wind blew it open,” one of them notes with casual indifference. “That makes WHAT kind of sense,” his panicky friend asks. Yes, their would-be blissful weekend retreat reveals itself to be anything but paradise by the time nightfall rolls around. You know why? Because these characters are standing in the middle of a horror movie, of course!
So what differentiates this from the trite and banal awfulness of something like the odious “Shark Night 3D” last summer? Truth be told, “Cabin” plucks a few of the same chords early on; bland scary movie archetypes planning an exciting getaway, both destinations are located on the lakeside, and there’s even the same chew-spittin’ sexist hick lumbering around at the conspicuous gas station. But comparing this film to “Shark Night 3D” is like analyzing “Pulp Fiction” side by side with “Destiny Turns On The Radio,” because “The Cabin In The Woods” is one of the sharpest, wittiest, and most fun films of its type since “Zombieland” or Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me To Hell.”
In fact, it’s probably even better than that, because there is a method to its madness and a sickening brilliance to its craft. Taking arguably the most hackneyed and overused slasher movie scenario in the book, the trapped teens in a creaky cabin surrounded by all sorts of bad juju (whether it be masked serial killers, zombies, ghastly entities, etc.), it expands upon the basic premise in unimaginable ways. And that’s just the beginning. It inflates beyond that and reveals itself to be part of a larger, grander, more profound picture. By the end, what started as a puny, limp little balloon of a premise has been puffed full of so much air that it would be a problematic feat to contain it inside the dome of the Roman Pantheon.
Nearly everybody I talk to says that this movie looks stupid based on the trailers and commercials, which are truly a mixed blessing. On one hand, the trailers (thankfully) don’t disclose much of the aces up the final product’s sleeve. On the other hand, they are a lousy attempt at a marketing campaign, advertising the film as the hopelessly generic haunted house flick that it lovingly skewers. No. No no no no no no! This is a horror comedy, or at the very least a horror satire with enough genre-savvy meta gags to make the “Scream” franchise throw in the towel.
As much as I would love to shout this movie’s glory up high on the mountaintops, it is impossible to do so without giving away certain plot elements. Needless to say, I will issue a SPOILER WARNING beyond this point. Short version of the review, it is great. Go see it and come back when it’s over. Trust me, the less you know, the more you’ll thank me for this.
Where were we? Oh yes: five teens are placed in a lakehouse in the middle of the forest with no means of contact to the outside world. Of course, this is established through the obligatory expositional dialogue of a character stating that the titular residence has “no cell phone reception.” It’s funny how that one phrase has become instant validation in the last decade for whenever a character gets cornered in a potentially life-threatening situation. If a horror movie doesn’t include this annotation anywhere in the script, I simply assume that its events take place before the year 1985. Even without being technologically attached to “The Grid” (“Tron: Legacy” much?), I doubt there would be anyone to call for the kinds of macabre stuff that happens all around. Not just the mysterious crawlspace opening by itself, but also the family of early 20th century zombies creeping in the forest outside the window.
How are these developments made possible? A mind-altering virus? An ancient curse placed upon the cabin? A Book of the Dead (there is actually an old diary that can be considered a Necronomicon of sorts)? It is actually none of the above, but is instead the doing of a large technological facility that concocts all of the terrible schemes and controls the fate of these unsuspecting teenagers. Think of them as Wes Bentley’s character from “The Hunger Games,” except without the twisty facial hair.
The two in charge of this organization, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), are introduced at the very beginning of the film engaged in a mundane watercooler conversation as though serving up a sinister smorgasbord of manslaughter were as viable of a profession as accounting. This isn’t just a deranged sadist out to torture campers, nor is it a group of violent fiends bound together by their sick minds; this is an entire institution devoted to the systematic elimination of innocent teens. Their keyboards unleash antagonistic forces into the open. They have all the surroundings bugged with cameras as they film the action. Some workers are even placing bets on what the outcome will be for their little human playthings.
Whereas the citizens of the Capitol in “The Hunger Games,” who marveled at the sights of children killing each other for survival, were caricatures of the reality TV junkies of the world, it’s harder to pinpoint exactly what categorization the corporation in “The Cabin In The Woods” falls under. They could be the makers of all mainstream horror films; they construct the sets, send up the monsters to the human world, and chemically manipulate the minds of the protagonists through synthetic gases so that they become programmed drones of the movie industry. They are directly referred to as “puppetmasters,” pulling the strings on what will happen. Worst of all, they lock the horror genre in a go-nowhere state of tedium and repetition. Then again, there are moments when they act as the audience, reveling in the simple pleasures, howling at the television monitors when a girl begins to take her top off.
“Buffy The Vampire Slayer” creator/“The Avengers” director/recognized god amongst geeks Joss Whedon co-writes the script with “Cloverfield” screenwriter Drew Goddard (also the film’s director), and the result is a genre-bending, multiple twist-bearing screenplay that is a few severed limbs more intelligent than your typical blood-and-gore exploitation extravaganza. The dialogue, when not riffing on the apathetic, mechanical nature of commonplace horror chit-chat, is first-rate and infinitely quotable. The actors are excellent here as well, breaking traditional character molds and acting as developed individuals with genuine personality. That is, up until the gamemakers release their toxins into the air, forcing them to behave like every other dumb teen we see in the “Friday the 13th” series.
The fun doesn’t let up for a second. In fact, the film accomplishes the near-impossible stunt of becoming even better and better the farther it goes along. This all culminates in a delightfully absurd (borderline surreal fantasy) and extreme third act which confirms the long-held suspicion that killers show no discernment when it comes to choosing their victims. Nor do they apparently show mercy. Think the scene in “The Shining” when a tidal wave of blood comes rushing out of the elevator and into the lobby. Now imagine the lobby continuing to fill up with blood, splattering on the walls and spilling on the corpse’s left strewn across the floor after the all the twisted, violent mayhem.