The Cabin in the Woods (review)

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Cabin in the Woods green light

The End of Horror

Oh. My.

Absolutely genius movie. Totally brilliant.

I know countless variations on the phrase “ultimate horror film” have been thrown around before. But I can’t see how any movie is more worthy of that claim than The Cabin in the Woods is. It’s not about a level of violence or gore. It’s not about clever kills. It’s about this: I don’t know how anyone can possibly make a horror movie again. Cabin renders all past and future examples of the genre superfluous. How can anyone ever top this? It seems impossible.
It’s not even about “topping.” It’s about– oo, it’s so hard not to spoil, and so delicious not to, because You. Are. Going. To. Love the surprises this flick has in store for you. I’m not sure there’s ever been a more spoilerable movie than Cabin in the Woods, and I’m not sure there’s ever been a movie that’s such a joy to keep the secret of, just to see the looks on everyone else’s faces when they make the discovery for themselves. And yet it’s not a case of how the mere knowledge that there’s a twist is spoiler enough to ruin a film. Cabin is so much more radically original than that. Merely knowing that there are things that can be spoiled tells you nothing, unlike in most other cases. Partly because the film has been marketed on the secret it’s keeping — “You think you know the story” is the tagline — and partly because it opens unlike any other horror movie you’ve ever seen.

See, even before we meet the Scooby gang of eager horny happy carefree young college students being set up for the slaughter, we meet the people who are setting them up for the slaughter. Umm, wut? Yup, there’s a… facility. It’s right there up on the screen plain as day, no pretending, as the film begins. The place is white and gleaming and clean and rather terrifyingly ordinary. It’s a workplace for regular guys like Richard Jenkins (The Rum Diary, Let Me In) and Bradley Whitford (Bottle Shock, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). Guys who wear short-sleeved dress shirts and talk about what they’re doing over the weekend. And then they go back to work, and their work is arranging things so the Scooby gang of eager horny happy carefree young college students can die in the cabin in the woods to which they are heading for a weekend vacay.

All horror movies are about conventions and stereotypes: Who dies first, and how. What makes the victims targets. What the motives of the killer(s) are. And so on. That gets blown out of the water — at least as a subtext of the narrative — right away. There’s something else going, and it’s not like anything we’ve learned about horror movies from watching horror movies. Except, as things begin to make themselves known, it sorta is, too. The Scooby gang is, as is pretty much de rigueur for horror flicks, played by a batch of appealing mostly-unknowns: Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, and Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Star Trek), who was still unknown back in early 2009, when Cabin was shot. There is among them the standard jock, blonde, virgin, brainiac, stoner. Yet they seem to defy the stereotypes, too: the blonde isn’t dumb, the brainiac isn’t nerdy. The clichés are here, and Cabin is having fun with them, without ever forgetting that they’re real people, as real as the men in the, er, facility watching them and manipulating them, men who pride themselves on their professionalism.

I can’t say more, except the very general. The Cabin in the Woods is everything you should expect from Lost veteran Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) — screenwriter and director — and his cowriter, Joss Whedon, of Firefly acclaim. (They’d previously worked together on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) This is nothing like an imitation or a continuation of either Lost or Firefly, but it shares certain spiritual and philosophical and geeky connections to both. Cabin works on many levels, including levels you may not have even realized were levels available to be explored. It is deeply horrifying and uncomfortably funny. It returns to the ancient, atavistic terrors that have been fueling scary stories since forever, and updates them in a way that feeds on uniquely modern ideas about such seemingly diverse notions as religion and bureaucracy. It’s a metaphor for storytelling that becomes its own sort of archetype — it’s practically a new archetype, if such a thing is possible.

You know how they say there are only six basic stories? I think Whedon and Goddard may have found a seventh.

I might be overstating the case here. But I really really really cannot overstate how much I love this movie, and how provocative it is in so many intellectually and viscerally appealing ways. Multiple repeat viewings shall be required, and lots more thought. I can’t wait.

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Rebecca Dalmas
Tue, May 14, 2013 7:15pm

The “with” instead of “for” was about rejecting the cosmology of “the lesser evil.” It perhaps even rejects the laws of cause and effect, rigidly clinging to what is intrinsically right, allowing whatever follows to follow.

Rebecca Dalmas
Tue, May 14, 2013 7:23pm

Spoiler: it made more sense to me to imagine all-seeing, dumb gods, ones that have to be continuously distracted by a formulaic slaughter that conforms to a specific dogma, or it automatically falls back on a reflex of annihilation.

Tue, May 14, 2013 8:07pm

Whether intentional or not, it does demonstrate a convergence of dogma (connected to the the ancient powers that need constant appeasement) with a hedonism that flat-out dismisses consequences, even ones that are certain and devastating. It’s as if the world cannot avoid its own destruction as long as both remain its influencers.

Marty’s choice might be one or the other, either a hedonistic choice or altruistic, perhaps that really depends on perspective and intention: suppose that the proposition is to suspend judgement into the personal realm of each individual, where also rests individual destiny, and that it’s more important to have a thoughtful reason for one’s path than to have chosen any one path; willful blindness is death.

Wed, Jun 05, 2013 6:52am

Having not read any Lovecraft, I actually didn’t pick up on the Cthulhu myth references throughout, but I think that’s a really interesting thing to point out. I think what both of you are missing in the plot, though, is what I interpreted as a larger metaphor for society. The “facility” represents society, pushing people into roles they’re ill-suited for (like too-rigid gender roles that insist women can be either “sluts” or “pure virgins” rather than somewhere in between). At the end, the choice to allow the gods to destroy the world is really the decision of young people who are tired of living in a world that is stuck in its ways, a society that tells them it is unacceptable for them to be the complex, multi-dimensional people they are (who do not neatly fit into those unforgiving roles), to give up on those tired ideas and let some new ones come to the surface.

Or, if you want to think of the plot in a slightly less grandiose way, the “facility” represents the genre of horror films — or even “cabin in the woods” subgenre horror films — and the tired character tropes they’ve been utilizing for the past couple of decades. The film points out that these stereotypes are nothing more than stereotypes, and they are exploitative and inaccurate representations of human beings, and especially women. They have no place in today’s world. Cabin in the Woods makes the claim that the only thing left is to do away with the boring and uncreative genre conventions of today’s worst horror films, and embrace some new, more interesting and realistic ones!

That’s why the choice matters. Our heroes have to decide whether or not they’ll save the world as it is, or if it’s time to give up. Whether or not you think their decision was right is another conversation entirely, but as a young college student myself, I related very well to those final moments of the film.

Sat, Mar 05, 2016 4:08am

You must be from the basement then.

reply to  Nathan
Sat, Mar 05, 2016 11:58am

Nuh uh…