After years stuck in limbo, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ has emerged from the ashes of the MGM collapse. Completed in 2009 but not released until now, it was a promise from Whedon and Goddard to return to the classic tropes of the horror genre, both a homage to the best and a critique of the worst. Horror hasn’t been in the best shape, with far too many films churned out quickly to optimise on cheap thrills and copious buckets of blood and gore. It's a sorry state for the genre which includes such classics as ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Evil Dead’, and a big promise from these two filmmakers. Such a significant delay and limited theatrical release suggests they might not have followed up on that promise. This only makes the result an even bigger surprise.
The premise seems relatively simple: five college kids head off to spend the weekend at a cabin deep in the woods. We all know where this is going, right? However, just as the cabin is not what it seems, the film is not what it seems. Any more plot description will inevitably give away too many surprises, and in a refreshing change, the twists and turns of this film are genuinely unexpected and genuinely surprising. Every time you think you know where it's going, it sharply changes direction, both subverting its genre and celebrating it at the same time. Whatever you think this film is, chances are, you won’t see it going where it does.
After years working as a writer under J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard makes his directorial debut with ‘Cabin’, co-writing with Whedon. Goddard had already proven himself a terrific genre player with his screenplay for Matt Reeves’ ‘Cloverfield’ (2008), and this film only confirms him a talent to watch. His direction is confident and skillful, giving the film a handsome look. There is a youthful energy to the film, but the suggestion that the director-at-work has an inherent understanding of the genre he is working with. The same can be said for the screenplay; the narrative twists unfolding with care. Nothing is given away too quickly, and the audience is asked to work just as much as the five ‘victims’ to decipher the puzzle the film presents.
Refreshingly, the characters are brilliantly executed across the board. Each of the five leads are character types we recognise, but with subtle variations that catch you by surprise. Rather than rooting for their demise, you find yourself becoming fond of them, sensing something more thoughful than the usual ‘lambs to the slaughter’. The performances are also generally excellent, especially from Kristen Connolly as Dana, who emerges as our protagonist, working against our expectations of a ‘damsel-in-distress’. Only Marty (Fran Kranz), the pot-addled slacker, doesn’t seem to be able to emerge from the shadow of his stereotype cliché. Much of the clunky exposition is given to him, and he tends to come across as irritating more than anything else. There is a bit too much of the Joss Whedon ‘self-awareness’ about him, something I’ve always found very hard to digest. There are other great performances in the film - but again, to say who they are and why, might be giving too much away.
‘Cabin’ doesn’t shirk on the blood and gore, with some incredibly inventive and gruesome set-pieces that both have you hiding behind your hands and giggling with glee at the same time.
It is as a participant in the horror genre that ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ proves itself most intelligent. Initially borrowing heavily from Sam Raimi’s classic ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981), the film evolves into a much greater analysis of what makes a classic horror film, and even more impressively, what makes a stinker. Goddard and Whedon have clearly done their homework, and horror fans will delight in the many references and subtle details woven into the fabric of the film. In many ways, it sits nicely next to Ryan Murphy’s equally impressive series ‘American Horror Story’, filling in the genre gaps that the show left unexplored. ‘Cabin’ also doesn’t shirk on the blood and gore, with some incredibly inventive and gruesome set-pieces that both have you hiding behind your hands and giggling with glee at the same time.
Perhaps its best subversion is at the audience itself, throwing up the bizarre conundrum these kinds of films present is with. We often find ourselves rooting for the poor victims while, at the same time, looking forward to seeing the gruesome way they’ll be knocked off. ‘Cabin’ throws that back in our faces, making us all too aware of this, and celebrating the conundrum. There is a beautiful awareness in the film of its audience's needs and expectations, satisfying horror enthusiasts while providing all the necessary scares to make it entertaining for everyone else. The finalé is a daring act of bravado, unexpectedly epic and completely barmy, but justified in every way. ‘Cabin’ travels very far from the film it started as, but earns every step it takes.
There is something frustrating yet very exciting about reviewing a film like ‘The Cabin in the Woods’. It is so rare these days to come across a film that benefits from knowing as little as possible, and giving a proper assessment of it without showing too many of the cards up its sleeve is difficult. That leaves me with no choice but to say that, if you’re even mildly intrigued after reading this, find any way you can to see it. It will leave you shaking your head in disbelief, and it’s not quite the perfect horror classic many people may have expected it to be, but what you get is something even more intriguing and something you’re not likely to forget in a hurry.
Unfortunately, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is not receiving a wide theatrical release, but many cinemas across the country are having exclusive screenings in the coming weeks, including an exclusive season at Cinema Nova in Melbourne. Early reports suggest a DVD/Blu-ray release in September.