The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Director: Drew Goddard
Writers: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Cast: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz
Running time: 95 minutes
If there’s one film genre that is prone to cliché and predictability then it has to be the horror genre. From deserted cabin to haunted house, masked stalker to blood-sucking creature of the night, persistent killer to final girl, horror films are littered with archetypes and stereotypes that play out with a familiarity that is often frustrating and wholly unoriginal. By the same token, the horror genre is also one of cinema’s most daring; because of its limitations, filmmakers are drawn to reinventing and reimagining the genre, and take great pleasure in tearing apart what is accepted and indeed, expected, from a horror film. Wes Craven’s Scream is an obvious example of a film that deliberately draws from horror clichés whilst also poking fun at them. Cabin in the Woods, whilst not as overtly referential as Craven’s postmodern meta-horror, is a similar attempt to deconstruct the cinematic landscape of the horror film, and for the most part, it works remarkably well.
Delayed by almost three years because of the collapse of MGM studios, Drew Goddard’s directorial debut is a film that is best approached cold and uninformed. There are some films – Psycho, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects – that have a central conceit so integral that spoilers do more than simply spoil; they actively undermine proceedings. It’s difficult to review a film like The Cabin in the Woods without making the details of its plot explicit, but the film’s main twist is so important to its success that I’m going to try anyway. I went into the film knowing nothing about it and I honestly believe that the less you know, the more you enjoy.
We’ve seen it countless times before; 5 teenagers (some horny, some dumb, one constantly stoned) decide to ‘go rural’ for a weekend by spending some ‘relaxation’ time in a suitably isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere. Our archetypes set off together in their RV, all wide-eyed promise and youthful expectation; they have an encounter with a grizzled gas-station attendant who forebodingly warns them off, and whom they predictably ignore. After reaching the cabin they engage in the customary alcohol-fuelled antics, playing ‘truth or dare’ and remaining blissfully ignorant of any potential danger. As the audience, we know what to expect; we’ve seen it all before in films like Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Unlike the characters on-screen, we’re in safe territory because we’re firmly within genre conventions, and it feels comfortable. On-screen, the group are investigating a dusty and decaying basement where strange objects and long-forgotten family heirlooms give both an indicator of the past and a warning of what’s to come. And then, with only the slightest of warnings, the film takes its predictable slasher-fodder sensibilities and turns in on itself in a way that is decidedly ingenious and utterly compelling. You might see it coming, but you’ll enjoy it regardless.
The point of the opening act of The Cabin in the Woods is simple; it uses every trick in the ‘Guide to Good Horror’ manual to lull us into a false sense of security. We feel comfortable because we know where it’s heading, but when the film turns and the brakes are removed, it heads towards territory that is unfamiliar and exciting. What follows should be discovered by watching the film and experiencing it as its creators want you to, but it’s safe to say that Drew Goddard’s film is a knowing and remarkably adept deconstruction of the archetypes and clichés that make the horror genre such a fertile stomping ground for such experimentation. Written by Goddard, along with Firefly and Buffy creator, Joss Whedon (also at the helm of the much-anticipated Avengers Assemble which hits cinemas this week), the film works best when it is at its most referential; there are nods to Hellraiser, The Shining, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Hills Have Eyes, along with the aforementioned staples of survival horror such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and most overtly of all, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films. To say anything more though, would give the game away.
Because of the necessary secrecy that needs to be woven around the second half of the film, it’s difficult to discuss the finer details of what works and what doesn’t. The film’s cast members all give solid performances, but a special mention should go to Fran Kranz who plays the oft-stoned and frequently funny, Marty. Kranz holds the film together in the early stages as the only truly likeable character and his role is a memorable one. Chris Hemsworth is also good as the rugged tough-guy archetype, and Kristen Connolly is effective as the determined female lead. It’s a tough ask for much of the cast because their roles are pre-determined by a necessity to fit traditional horror archetypes. Nevertheless, they rise to the challenge and deserve credit for pulling off a difficult task.
The Cabin in the Woods is not a perfect film by any means and there are some issues that threaten to spoil proceedings. The predictable build-up, whilst necessary with regards to setting up the film’s latter stages, is rather plodding at times and could have included more of the ingenuity that is so evident during the film’s final hour. The ending is also problematic and fails to chime with the carefully created and knowingly-referential nature of what has come before. These are small criticisms, and in the scheme of things, do little to detract from an immensely enjoyable film, yet they are what prevent The Cabin in the Woods from achieving genuine greatness in its field.
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are quite obviously fans of the genre, and their film functions as a cinematic version of a magic-eye puzzle. The opening stages are fuzzy, predictable, and a little uninspiring, and it’s difficult to see just how the film can escape its predefined boundaries. However, when the central twist reveals itself and its conceit comes into focus, you can’t help but sit up a little straighter and marvel at the creativity on offer. Fans of the genre will have fun spotting the visual references on display, but viewers with only a passing knowledge of horror can still take a great deal from an immensely enjoyable thrill-ride that leaves its tracks halfway in and never looks back. Go in cold, and go in uniformed. Most importantly, just go in.