The Cabin in the Woods represents a new, albeit peculiar, breed of twists to the horror genre. It’s a movie about a certain archetype of movie, and as such, it’s an especially difficult film to review.
Cabin‘s aforementioned twists cunningly revolve around breaking a whole gamut of proven (and quite frankly, profitable) rules of storytelling in the “alone-in-the-woods” realm of midnight movie fare. Because of that, a reviewer must be extra mindful of not forfeiting too many details, which may prove critical to the plot. Nevertheless, before this review becomes a review about reviews (it’s a slippery slope, my dear readers), I’ll get on with it.
R, 1 hr. 35 min.; Directed By: Drew Goddard; Written By: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard; Produced by Lionsgate Films
Naturally, it’s best to go into this film with as much unawareness of its premise as possible. So, if you haven’t seen this movie yet (and have an interest in seeing it), go see it and stop reading these words. Seriously, stop right now.
Unfortunately, Cabin‘s ubiquitous trailers have a nasty habit of prematurely ejaculating its most viscous of diabolical secrets (a screaming, blood-curdling shame, if you ask me). Still, if you’re reading this review, then I’m assuming you’ve watched the trailer. For those of you that don’t believe in digital cable (I wouldn’t blame you), I strongly suggest you stop reading this fine review and watch the film instead.
OK, I’ve made my peace with spoiler alerts.
The Cabin in the Woods focuses on five college students (or should I say, five slasher-film stereotypes) that “up” and decide to take a roadtrip into a remote location where modern civilization has yet to make its acquaintance. A la the infamous (and genre-defining) Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they hop into a van (Scooby-Doo style) and travel to the titular cabin in the woods to act out their fates as caricatures of previous films in the slasher genre.
Genre-specific character blueprints include the libidinous blonde (“Jules”, played by Anna Hutchison); her alpha-male, thick-necked jock boyfriend (“Curt”, played by Chris Hemsworth); the comic-relief pothead or “fool” (“Marty”, played by Fran Kranz); the innocent, virginal (and single) girl-next-door (“Dana”, played by Kristen Connolly); and her sensitive would-be beau (“Holden”, played by Jesse Williams).
Speaking of “previous films of the genre,” I recall the famous set pieces akin to Evil Dead (directed by Sam Raimi); Friday the 13th (directed by Sean S. Cunningham); and Cabin Fever (a more recent spin on the cabin-survival genre, directed by Eli Roth). In fact, the very cabin itself looks to be an almost exact recreation of the cabin in Raimi’s Evil Dead, which even includes the attic door that leads to the cellar (located in the living room); and the unwise strolls in the woods our sacrificial lambs take in the moonlit dark of night.
This, however, is where it gets interesting. Much of what makes these characters caricatures isn’t so much the characters themselves, but the unscrupulous puppeteering of a complex, state-of-the-art, underground, government-funded laboratory, whose primary cast members (brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins of Six Feet Under and Bradley Whitford of the West Wing) control the victims’ path of behaviors and actions with a cocktail of gaseous mind-control chemicals, dials, perceptual trickery, and levers — all while presiding over their every move through a bank of surveillance monitors.
Well, you know, it’s a matter of national security. Necessary evils, man!
In fact, the film opens with this revelation in place, and it’s made clear that a certain barrier acts as a bridge between our reality and a “virtual” reality created by the underground lab. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t bore us with the buildup of suspense. Suspense is so yesterday, after all.
If you think that comprises enough of an “oh snap” twist, rest assured there’s more to it, to which I’ll be sure to keep these typing fingers strategically sown. As you might imagine, this is fertile ground for director Drew Goddard and writer Josh Whedon to exhaust their imagination. The film gleefully acknowledges the rules of its genre, then breaks them. It’s almost a horror movie for people that hate horror movies. Brilliant, right?
Well, as Douglas Quaid famously told Vilos Cohaagen in Total Recall (1990), “I have to hand it to you, it’s the best mind-fuck yet.“
Unfortunately, the cost of so much cleverness is the sustained fright of Goddard’s targeted audience. While much of the cabin and its surrounding woods represent a virtual playground for government sadists with degrees in biology, psychiatry, and chemistry, the monsters they conjure are very real, with the very real power to maim, torture, and kill these guinea pigs. This aspect of the film is — gorefiends rejoice — winningly brutal and disturbing. For anyone with a sensitive stomach and an impressionable, squeamish brain, I recommend you steer clear of this one.
Still, beyond these poignant moments of terror (in part due to Cabin‘s meticulous sound design), the eons-old facet of the human mind known as “the fear of the unknown” is subtracted from the equation — which is, in of itself, a rather gory affair. Some rules are meant to remain unbroken, and for this bespectacled reviewer, horror films worthy of canonization typically adhere to leaving certain details half-or-fully immersed in obscurity.
Cabin, on the other hand, wears its tricks, smoke, and mirrors on its sleeve, and that fact alone cannibalizes (pardon the pun) a large chunk of its “fun”. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I wasn’t terrified, though. Barring this film’s enormous (and ridiculous) bestiary, its scariest aspect isn’t necessarily the on-screen kill sequences (which are rather mean-spirited), but the notion that the U.S. government would go to such lengths in the name of national security.
Goddard and Whedon’s keen use of the metaphor (however exceeding) as a parallel to our own sociopolitical climate is arguably too crafty for this movie’s own good — whose purpose is to merely entertain, right?
What is this film asking me? If I may, here’s one possible slice of rhetoric: What constitutional freedoms must those in the highest seats of power sacrifice for the greater well-being of the nation? How justifiable is Cabin‘s scenario, when extracted of its grim kitsch and satire?
For the program’s key participants to take such pleasure in watching innocent people get slaughtered by monsters they themselves released into the wild is also more than a little unsettling. Are Americans at an irreversible point of desensitization? At a gray impasse between moral imperatives?
Am I digging too deep? For this type of movie … probably, yes.
To many, The Cabin in the Woods is a “horror-comedy” that, by the law of extremes, parodies so many of its horror/slasher predecessors. Yet, to a small percentage of “doomsday” Americans, this film is a 95-minute field day. Truth is, people write entire books about the government’s ongoing relationship with the “coming Armageddon”, notwithstanding the CIA’s shadier programs in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Namely, Operation Paperclip; MK-ULTRA; and Project Monarch — which centered around radical, sadistic, and allegedly trauma-based experiments on U.S. citizens and Canadians for the purposes of advancing knowledge in the field of mind control and human behavior.
Just how prevalent are these “evil government” tropes in pop culture, anyway? Look no further than Jonathan Demme’s Manchurian Candidate, or J.J. Abram’s wildly addictive spook-show, Fringe, or even Ti West’s take on ritual abuse in House of the Devil.
Interestingly enough, the film’s opening credits allude to ancient sacrificial rituals, which are, confusedly, absent in the rest of the film. A bit misleading; but it seems to allude to the film’s modern take on these rituals.
Goddard’s Cabin cherry picks these fringe beliefs and runs rampant with them. For the most part, Goddard/Whedon succeed at churning our stomachs, but not entirely in the form of a full-fledged horror movie. Cabin preys on our fear of “shadow government”. One must never take our fear of having little-to-no control over who we are as individuals for granted.
That the decisions we make on a day-to-day be largely prefabricated by an all-seeing demiurge — something synthetic, something created in a lab, something that doesn’t occur naturally in our environment. I know, we’ve all seen The Matrix.
Whatever one’s belief paradigm may be, it’s hard to deny our symbiotic relationship with pop culture. A culture inundated by ads and slogans that stimulate (or subdue) its “subjects” in the direction of material gain, sexual gratification, and “reptilian brain” behavior.
While some of the scares are robbed of their virility in lieu of its satirical exploits, The Cabin in the Woods strikes an unusual balance between terror, entertainment, and causticity. I like surprises, at least in terms of moviedom. Perhaps my problem with this film isn’t the film itself, but with the marketing. I would have preferred the advertising campaign take a subtler approach with its trailer and let its viewers experience it with fresher eyes. I would have preferred the film’s final stretch (its most flamboyant reveal) take a much less bombastic, CGI-frenzied approach, and leave some of our nightmares in their preferred state: Half-immersed between this empirical coil we call reality, and that which is unknown.
But that’s just me.