(Disclaimer: since the spoiler police are out in force, I will make it clear that the following review gives away minor plot points, or “spoilers”, from the first 20 minutes or so of the film. None of the major revelations or twists are revealed, only a basic sense of what makes this film noteworthy. If you wish to see this film tabula rasa, turn back now…)
On paper, comedy and horror should mix about as well as an Adam Sandler cameo in The Wire, and yet for generations now writers have seen the uses of this unlikely genre clash. James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is as much a camp comedy classic as it is a commentary on the folly and hubris of man. Comedy in horror can lull you into a false sense of security, or calm you down after a fright. It can satirise and scrutinise. Sometimes it’s the horror itself that is funny. Almost 80 years after Bride of Frankenstein, through countless B-movie pastiches, The Evil Dead, Scream and the Final Destination movies, we come at last to The Cabin in the Woods.
Co-written by Joss Whedon, who altered the layout of modern horror with Buffy the Vampire Slayer through its post-feminist heroine and pop-culture-obsessed demons, this on-the-surface by-the-numbers scary movie was always going to be a clever beast; perhaps a little too clever for its own good. But throw in co-writer and first time director Drew Goddard, who penned several episodes of Buffy and Lost as well as giving a failed defibrillation to the monster movie genre with Cloverfield, and this ultra-self-aware horror pastiche takes on a life of its own. Like Doctor Frankenstein, Whedon and Goddard struggle to control the monster they have created.
The writer duo revel in horror movie clichés. Five attractive college kids take a break for the weekend to party at a secluded cabin that is as inviting as it is spine-chillingly terrifying, à la The Evil Dead. But there’s something very new in this film, too. Elsewhere, in a high-tech facility – or what might have passed for a high-tech facility in the early ‘90s – a pair of technicians settle in for a busy weekend of their own. When the horrors start befalling the unfortunate youths, the mysterious technicians are able to witness it all through Big Brother-like hidden cameras. Soon they’re placing bets on what gruesome fates will befall the victims. But why?
Twistier than a giant cobra, The Cabin in the Woods relishes in sending up the horror genre. The college kids begin the film with modest character profiles: Chris Hemsworth plays buff group leader Curt, who is also an A-grade student on a sociology scholarship; Kristen Connolly is Dana, the cutesy one who has just ended an inappropriate relationship with one of her lecturers. But as the film goes on, the characters all descend into horror movie clichés: Curt becomes an alpha-male anti-intellectual bully; Dana becomes meek and sexually conservative. The opposite seems to happen to Marty (Fran Kanz), who starts out the ultimate horror movie trope, the stoner kids, all puffs and quips. Against type, he is the first to become alert to the fact something very strange is happening in the cabin.
The most fun happens at the facility, where the technicians (almost forgotten one-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins (The Visitor?) and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford) switch between discussing their curious work and banal topics such as how to baby-proof an apartment. When two of the inhabitants of the house begin to have sex, the technicians frustratedly question whether or not the camera angles will allow them to see breasts – a question raised millions of times by adolescent-minded males of all ages while watching horror movies.
After cleverly establishing itself in the first act, The Cabin in the Woods stumbles into average horror movie territory in its midsection – it cannot parody without falling prey to the necessary beats and rhythms of the genre. The film is redeemed in spades however by its unpredictable, inspired and hysterically manic final act. To say any more would be to spoil one of the most unexpectedly surprising sequences you will see this year.
There’s plenty of the signature Whedon wit on display, and some pleasingly nasty horror too. The film may not be the deconstructionist masterpiece that early reviews might have you believe, but it is fun and smart and a worthy entry in the list of great revisionist horror movies. Its finest achievement is the sly suggestion that every horror film ever made has had its own pair of technicians puppeteering events. In that way, Cabin in the Woods has really left its mark on the genre.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)