The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – Crowd-pleasing Monster Mash, with Brains…

Horror has been in a dark place for the last decade.  When Scream 4 crawled out of the gate last year, with the tagline promise of “New Rules”, I hoped the writer-director team of Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven would apply the intelligence so freshly applied to the cliched stalk n’ slash sub-genre in the original movie to the depressing, sadistic trend of torture porn prevalent in the 2000’s.

While Scream 4 acknowledged the presence of grungy, industrial strength reboots of classic horror franchises and video nasties, and incorporated streaming live blogs and iPhones, the movie bottled out & played safe.  Instead, it came across as deeply anachronistic and twee – in the era of Hostel, Human Centipede and The Devil’s Rejects, there was something nostalgic and almost comforting about seeing good-looking, middle class kids disemboweled by a nutter in a mask.

Could Scream, which had simultaneously revitalized and satirized a tired genre, have somehow contributed to this shift in direction?  Classic stalk n’ slash offers up stereotypical characters for the slaughter, plus at least one character for the audience to identify and root for, as they overcome terror to defeat the bogey man.

Torture porn, with its emphasis on the humiliation and degradation of its 1D characters, before focusing on their gruesome dismemberment, identifies the viewer more closely with the killer.  Take The Devil’s Rejects.   The main characters are a family of necrophiliac, rapist mass murders – by their eventual demise, shot up and driving towards certain death at a police barricade, they are cast almost as folk heroes, like Butch & Sundance, set to Free Bird and lensed in similar warm, sepia tones.

The Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, the men who brought you Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a smart, engaging, clever and funny attempt to revitalize the genre once more.  Whedon, clearly passionate about the genre, described it as a “loving hate letter”, and is the freshest thing to happen in American horror since Drew Barrymore answered that fateful phone call back in 1996.

While it doesn’t reconcile the torture porn issue as much as Whedon perhaps intended to, it does take a hackneyed set up of a sub-sub-genre, pick it apart, turn it on its head, pack it with surprises, mash it together with another sub-genre of our modern Big Brother world and leave the movie buff with plenty to chew over.

It is about now, if you haven’t seen The Cabin in the Woods, that you should nip off and watch the movie, because I’m about to give away all the surprises.  And this is definitely a film you will enjoy better the less you know about it beforehand.

It starts in “Have we downloaded the right movie?” territory, in a high-tech facility, with a couple of middle-aged technicians preparing for a top-secret operation, while chatting idly about the weekend and DIY.  Just in case you’re not sure where this segment of the movie is going, another character is helpfully named Truman.

Cut to the protagonists: five teens, who initially seem to conform to horror stereotypes: a good girl, Dana (Kristen Connolly), a slutty bad girl, Jules (Anna Hutchinson), a typical jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and his more scholarly friend, Holden (Jesse Williams).  Finally, there is the comic relief and stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz).

The friends load up the RV and head off for a holiday in the woods.  On the way, they have a creepy encounter with an unfriendly redneck garage attendant, and instead of heeding his cryptic warnings, continue to the titular cabin in the woods.

Their destination is a scary looking hut with a sagging roof, taxidermized animal heads on the wall, and a trapdoor leading to a cellar.  Unlike the Scream crowd, this bunch clearly haven’t seen many horror movies, and certainly aren’t familiar with the Evil Dead.

They get drunk and flirt, and investigate the scary cellar, packed with sinister relics from the previous owners.  One finds a music box with a twirling ballerina; another reads from an ancient diary; one more tries getting a note from a conch shell; yet another is intrigued by a puzzle box.

Despite Marty’s warnings, Dana recites a latin passage from the diary, re-animating the rotting corpses of the Bruckner family, who descended into madness and murder decades before.

Deep in the facility beneath them, the watching technicians have arranged a sweepstake on which horror scenario the tinkering teens will unleash, and their work begins in earnest.  The same thing happens across the globe, and we are kept abreast of the situation in Japan in particular, as a Ring-like apparition terrorizes a class of school girls.

It becomes clear the teens are sacrifices to appease malevolent old Gods, who will awake and destroy the world unless tribute is paid in blood.

The teens are manipulated in appearance and behaviour to horror movie cliches, and the technicians use drugs and mechanical tricks to force them into scenarios.  It is important they choose their fate by free will, but the tech-heads aren’t about to let too much sensible thinking allow the sacrifices an escape.

This manipulation elicits an unexpected level of sympathy toward the five friends, in particular Jules, who more than the others is crafted into the slutty blonde required of the set up.  When she and Curt head out into the woods for sex, the technicians release pheromones to make her hornier, and romantic moonlight to encourage her further.  After the “obligatory tit shot”, the Bruckners hack her up, and Curt narrowly escapes back to the cabin.

The friends try making sensible decisions, and talk a little like real people, but the machinations of the control room keep maneuvering them into peril – a wise choice by natural leader Curt of sticking together is voided by more mind-altering drugs, and the carnage continues.

The Cabin in the Woods works so well because it exists in a universe where nightmarish supernatural and magical creatures are real, albeit contained in the facility and the high-tech sacrificial altar of the cabin and the surrounding woods.  The creatures exist, and the horror is real, but the terror is comically counterbalanced by the everyday mundanity of the technicians, regular guys just doing their jobs and making often hilariously callous comments about the action above ground.

Naturally, the horror of the teens and the murderous undead Bruckners tips over into the underground facility, building to a gloriously splatterly, crowd-pleasing set piece, which is like the horror equivalent of Bob Hoskins going to Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

It isn’t perfect.  The Cabin in the Woods, while relentlessly good-natured for a horror, and never less than intelligent, isn’t  funny or scary enough for a true classic, although it is sure to develop a strong cult following.

Commendably, Goddard plays the gore for comic effect, and the writer-director team make mostly the right choices, in particular cutting away from deaths instead of gratuitously lingering on the dismemberment.

In retrospect, after seeing all the creatures the teens could have released, the generic zombie scenario is a bit disappointing, although Bruckner Snr’s method of reeling in victims, with a rusty bear trap swung on a length of chain, is appealingly brutal.

There are three big errors: revealing the invisible grid surrounding the arena far too early, when it would have been far more of a shock if introduced when Curt makes his heroic motorbike jump.

After the bonkers monster mash in the facility, Sigourney Weaver’s unnecesary expositionary speech, dilutes the film’s impact. Her arrival disrupts the movie’s vibe, and everything is already clear by the time she rolls up.

Finally, not many movies have the courage to conclude with the end of the world, but in The Cabin in the Woods, the apocalypse is pretty anti-climactic.  Kubrick went with Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again over footage of mushroom clouds at the end of Dr Strangelove,  Whedon and Goddard go for a generic CGI hand bursting out of the earth, then roll credits. Very disappointing.

The Cabin in the Woods does enough in its running time to forgive these duff moments, and hopefully will inspire film makers to leave the ghouls, rapists and torturers in their basements and boiler rooms, and usher in a new era of inventive, intelligent horror movie.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 29/09/2012, in C, Comedy, Entertainment, Fantasy, Film, Horror, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. We absolutely loved your reviews and you now have a new follower. Hope you do the same and keep up the great work. We may feature one of your stories on the show.

  2. Great write up. I thought the same that out of all the choices for the monsters to kill the kids, zombies was a generic choice. Perhaps that was the point?

    • Thanks very much! Thinking back on it, I’m sure you’re right, the zombie scenario probably was a deliberate choice…and certainly scarier than a psycho Unicorn!

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