Film Review: “The Cabin in the Woods”

Written by Film, Film Reviews

Joss Whedon has his hand in a monster mash.

What lurks inside The Cabin in the Woods? The easier question might be, What doesn’t lurk inside The Cabin in the Woods? A partial list of its winks, homages, and outright steals (committed in a loving way) includes Friday the 13th (today’s opening date was not randomly chosen), The Evil Dead, The Matrix, The Thing, The Strangers, Night of the Living Dead, pretty much every other horror movie made since the late 60s, pretty much every monster movie with a monster that has tentacles and/or elongated jaws, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and The Wolf Man. At least I think I saw a wolf man, somewhere beneath the floorboards…

Review after review of the movie complains that it’s hard to write about without giving it all away. Pussies. I mean, the hardcore target audience already saw the thing at midnight, so…no, I won’t spoil anything. But the linkage of two separate threads is there from the get-go, and the amusement (and it is amusing, in a grisly, gratifyingly R-rated way) comes as they knot together. In the first storyline, a group of archetypal college students familiar from slasher flicks–the good girl, the good boy, the dumb blonde, the jock, and the stoner–head to the archetypal cabin in the woods for a getaway. In the second, bunkered scientists (including Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) prepare as nonchalantly as possible for an experiment of some kind, one where the students are observed at close range. Very close range, as the archetypal weird occurences that befall archetypal college students at archetypal cabins in the woods begin to mount.

The Cabin in the Woods is co-written and directed (his feature debut) by Drew Goddard, but the power behind the throne here is his mentor, co-writer and co-producer Joss Whedon. With the Comic-Con documentary in release and The Avengers set to launch on May 4 it’s Whedon’s world, so what are we living in? I don’t really know his TV work (yeah, I know, sacrilege)–from the looks of this movie, it’s a place for genre fans to loll around in, surrounded by their “creature” comforts and flattered for their insider’s knowledge. Handsomely shot in widescreen by veteran DP Peter Deming (Mulholland Dr.) The Cabin in the Woods is a far cry from those cruddy found footage flicks that the gullible flock to, but it co-opts their strategy of constant surveillance and observation, and in the first two-thirds or so puts it to snuff movie uses that would be disturbing if a David Cronenberg were at the helm. Whedon and Goddard, though, are only interested in the thrill ride; the ramifications of what’s going on are for wusses. Musn’t trouble the audience.

They do risk losing it, or a good chunk of it, in the final third. Trying to make an alternative to the torture porn subgenre (never mind that it uses some of same tropes, and never mind that that cycle was pretty much played out by 2009, the year this long-delayed movie went into production) the movie leans on more classical models for its hellzappoppin finale. Goddard says the movie is studded with “Easter eggs,” suitable for locating on the DVD or Blu-ray (the movie is its own built-in special edition), but I was so distracted by what was being lobbed at me I got impatient, and the non-fans looking for a few weekend movie kicks are likely to be bewildered by a shift in direction to meta-movie that’s well beyond Scream. It’s never pretty when an audience, feeling played by a movie, rejects it, and I can hear the groans from the multiplex. (It doesn’t help that in the three years since The Cabin in the Woods wrapped, during which jock co-star Chris Hemsworth graduated to play Thor, its “surprise” guest star served pretty much the same function in another genre love letter that’s all over cable now.)

As Whedon hopes for mass success with The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods should add to his growing cult resume. It’s nothing if not affectionate toward horror movies, maybe too much so, and it is so stuffed with things I can see myself pausing the Blu-ray repeatedly to see what I missed. There was a wolf man, right?

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