The Cabin in the Woods (2012)


Before I go any farther, please accept this caution: If you don’t want this movie’s surprises to be spoiled, you would be wise to avoid almost all reviews of The Cabin in the Woods. Here’s my promise to you: I’ll strive to avoid spoiling any significant surprises beyond the opening act — in fact, you’ll have more surprises spoiled by the film’s trailers and TV commercials than by this review.

But regarding the movie’s imaginative set-up… yes, I’ll describe that. So be advised that you may want to stop here and go see the movie before reading further.

Okay. Here we go.

First, the obvious: The Cabin in the Woods is the latest in a movie genre that seems to have a new installment every month, if not more frequently. It’s another variation on the formula in which a bunch of foolish young people — kids blessed with extra-large sex drives, less-than-basic decision-making skills, and malfunctioning moral compasses (in other words, tomorrow’s movie stars and politicians) — go on an excursion into the wilderness. They’re compelled to leave law, order, adult supervision, and civilization behind and behave recklessly and irresponsibly. They’re the kind of folks who keep David Brooks up at night writing books about societal decline. They’re always destined to camp out in a dark, shabby, and poorly secured shelter, far from any kind of community or services or cops. But first, they get a warning by a figure who serves as a sort of “gatekeeper.” And then, as they ignore their own premonitions of trouble, they begin to engage in their intended recklessness, only to discover that savage dangers lurk in the wilderness.

What else is the wilderness for, after all, but to give savage dangers a place to lurk without inconveniencing all of us, who are thoughtful and responsible human beings?

And then, sure enough, some of these volunteer corpses find that they don’t have what it takes to save themselves from such perils, and that maybe community, responsibility, and security were good ideas after all.

In other words, horror movies like this are cautionary tales about the wages of sin. Whether moviegoers believe in good and evil, or right and wrong, or not… something in them wants, even needs, stories like this. We come away, whether we perceive this or not, having some kind of affirmation that there are such things as wisdom and folly, that fools come to a bad end, and that there’s something to those nagging senses of conscience and restraint that all but the worst of us feel.

We get such a steady diet of these stories that the art of telling those stories has become an important subject in itself. So some of us aren’t drawn to the stories because we’re eager to see blood, but because we’re interested in how a storyteller succeeds, or fails, to inspire suspense, to infuse the form with humor, to surprise us with new variations, or to explore a theme that this kind of story hasn’t explored before.

Me, I make an effort to avoid “cabin in the woods” stories because most of them seem to have been made with little or no interest in engaging our imaginations… they only want to shock, slap, stun, or abuse the audience. The louder the violence, the faster the action, and the more gratuitous the gore, the sooner I’ll be changing the channel or heading out to do something more rewarding with my time.

But I was eager to see this one because of the artists involved: Particularly director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon, who make a habit of achieving better-than-average storytelling within the boundaries of timeworn conventions. (Toy Story, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Firefly, Lost, and the upcoming and inevitable blockbuster The Avengers — all of these have had Whedon, Goddard, or both involved.

Sure enough, Cabin in the Woods is so packed with ideas, so constant in its surprises, that it makes almost all other blood-and-guts genre tales seem boring and lazy by comparison. And as usual, Whedon has a lot more on his mind than leading a bunch of bone-headed sophomores to judgment.

Goddard and Whedon begin by introducing us to a parallel storyline: Two incredibly bland men (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, playing against type by demonstrating blandness) make their way to a control center where they assume command. They seem to be monitoring the progress of the story we’ve come to see, and perhaps to manipulate parts of it. But why? And how?

That would be telling.

As for the main event, it’s as reassuringly familiar as a Happy Meal. And here are the courses in this five-course meal for the monsters:

  • The obligatory “good girl” is Dana (Kristen Connolly), and she’s just the sort of wide-eyed redhead that Whedon loves, the sort that can kick ass when cornered.
  • The obligatory “decent guy,” Holden (Jesse Williams), demonstrates just how decent he is by mustering the courage to (brace yourself) refrain from peeping-tom opportunities. He’s a prince among men!
  • Then there’s the obligatory Barbie doll/sexual-exhibitionist (Anna Hutchinson) who has no greater aspiration than dancing like a stripper and appeasing the Neanderthal desires of…
  • … the obligatory jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth).
  • Acting jittery and sensing trouble, the obligatory comic relief character is a stoner named Marty (Franz Kanz).

Who will live and who will die when the mayhem begins? And what shape will that mayhem take?

You’ll find out. But you’ll also have to ask yourself why such mayhem is necessary, and why so many of us are eager to see it week-in and week-out. That’s because the movie insists on such questions. It constantly shifts back and forth from the carnage in the woods to the drooling primitives in white dress shirts who are clearly turned on by it all. This movie’s a sort of rebellious grandchild of The Truman Show, alternating between the horrors of its “reality show” and the appalling hard-heartedness of its conscience-free audience, just as The Hunger Games shows us characters being exploited for the heartless happiness of privileged observers.

Dare I suggest that The Cabin in the Woods is better at exploring questions about our voyeuristic culture, and about the desensitizing forms of escapism we pursue, than the much-celebrated blockbuster of the year, The Hunger Games? Yes. Yes, I think so.

Dare I suggest that Cabin in the Woods finds our culture’s chosen storytellers revealing a profound sense of oncoming doom, of judgment for our indulgence and our recklessness, even as they seem to admit a kinship with the audience that clamors for scenes of big-screen slaughter? Uh-huh, I dare that. 2011 and 2012 are unnervingly crowded with movies about human beings struggling to cope with inevitable annihilation. The Cabin in the Woods is, in the end, a lot like Melancholia in its view of humanity and what it deserves… just funnier.

The Cabin in the Woods is far, far above average for the genre in almost every way. It’s the most fun I’ve had at the movies in 2012 so far, and I cannot wait to see it again. It’s going to become a cult classic like Shaun of the Dead. Best of all, its finale is … well, as I said earlier, I’m not an expert on this genre, but if there’s a more spectacular finale in a horror movie, I’d like you to tell me what it is. The final act of this film feels like something Whedon and Goddard have dreamed of delivering since they were ten years old. (One of the stories I wrote at age twelve was similarly frenzied, driven by an almost-identical premise. If you’re interested, I’ll be happy to tell you about it.)

While I have lingering reservations about whether a genre so prone to excess can ever do more good than harm for its audience, I will say that this questionable endeavor contains some surprising food for thought… for those willing to think while they watch and discuss when it’s over. Those that come for the sophomoric hijinx and fail to think through what they’re seeing will probably miss that the movie is making them the target of its sharpest observations.

But don’t worry — I’m not going to say that the film offers any profound vision of redemption. If any course of this humans-dipped-in-sauce Happy Meal is going to survive the bloodshed, it’s not for love or sacrifice, but for luck and some desperate kick-assery. The sense of despair that prevails in this film suggests that there is no mercy or grace or benevolent Overseer out there, and that we are thus headed for the disastrous end that we deserve. You watch the news, don’t you? What hope do we have, really… unless there is a higher power out there who is greater than anything Whedon or Goddard have yet imagined onscreen… a power greater in mercy than judgment, more inclined toward love than wrath and bloodlust?

I’m going to gamble, and hope that’s the case. Otherwise, we’re probably doomed to fulfill this movie’s dire prophecies. For all of the fun that they seem to be having, Whedon and Goddard, playing judge and jury, seem resolved to convicting the lot of us.

UPDATE:

Worthwhile reading from Nick Olsen and Jeremy Purves.

 

Director – Drew Goddard; writers – Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard; director of photography – Peter Deming; editor – Lisa Lassek; music – David Julyan; production design – Martin Whist; costumes – Shawna Trpcic; producer – Joss Whedon. Starring - Kristen Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), Bradley Whitford (Hadley), Brian White (Truman) and Amy Acker (Lin). Lionsgate. 1 hour 35 minutes.
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