The Cabin in the Woods (review)

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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