Review: The Cabin in the Woods


[This review was originally published as part of our coverage of SXSW 2012. It has been reposted to coincide with the film’s national release.]

There is so much amazing stuff going on in Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods that I can’t tell you about, and it’s agonizing. This may be one of the best, most original horror movies I’ve seen in damn near a decade, and I can barely recap the trailer for you without giving WAY too much away. There’s a mystery here that’s more powerful than all the puzzle box marketing of all the J.J. Abrams films and televisions shows put together. I was talking to my brother, a writer at Culture Mob who’s seen the film as well, and he describes it best: “It’s Evil Dead meets another movie that you really can’t guess and being told what it is ruins the surprise.”

I’m going to do my best to not ruin the surprise of Cabin in the Woods. If you’re a horror movie fan, though, this should be the absolute number one film on your radar this year, no excuses. And if you’re not, you should still see it for a thoroughly Joss Whedon take on the horror genre.

The Cabin in the Woods
Director: Drew Goddard
Rating: R
Release Date: April 15

Cabin in the Woods has a seemingly familiar setup. Five pretty college kids head out to an old cabin in the middle of the woods for a weekend of drinks, drugs, and sex. There’s the established couple, footballer Kurt (Chris Hemsworth, pre-Thor as the film was shot in 2009) and Jules (Anna Hutchinson), the nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), stoner Marty (Fran Kranz enjoying his ability to walk away with basically every project he’s in), and innocent, virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly). If this is looking familiar to you already, you’re both right and wrong. When the gang reaches their destination, which is almost a room-for-room dead ringer for the cabin in Evil Dead, things start to get very odd very quickly. At this point, if I say anything else about the plot or its direction, I do a great movie a serious disservice. Suffice to say, the film’s tagline, “You think you know the story,” needs to have a big honking emphasis on the word “think,” because even with what’s been spoiled in the trailers, you really have no idea of what is truly going on here.

The script, written by Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, is exactly as sharp and clever as you’d expect it to be. You’ve got that trademark rapid-fire Whedonesque patter, positively oozing wit. Every actor on hand does brilliantly, though the best work is being done by Fran Kranz, essentially adding a stoner bent to his character from Dollhouse to great effect. He’s the most genre aware character in the film, key to the ongoing horror deconstruction found in the film, but more on that later.

In traditional slasher movie fashion, no single character gets too much development or back story, since there’s that looming, unspoken agreement that most of these pretty collegiates aren’t going to make it out alive. There are two other standout performances, though I’m wary of sharing the exact details of their roles. Veteran character actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford bring a wry sense of humor to their weighty roles, evoking a bizarro-Office Space vibe in some truly horrible conditions. That’s exactly as much as I can say without giving anything away.

Horror deconstruction is almost a genre of its own now, with stuff like the Scream movies and the underrated classic Behind the Mask, and with good, fun reason. Horror movies are second only to romantic comedies and maybe hero’s journey pictures in terms of near-universally recognizable tropes and traits. Everybody knows the one about the black guy always dying first. Everybody knows the one about the slutty girl dying and the innocent girl living. This is where the magic really happens in Cabin in the Woods. It’s kicked down the door, put its feet on the coffee table, and crowned itself the new king of horror deconstruction.

The film mines such wonderful material through its own unique way of lampshading the various cliches and tropes of horror, but it never gets into Scream territory, where a character mentions a trope, explains several examples of the trope in cinema, and then the trope happens in the film. With Cabin, the tropes occur, but it’s all a part of the writer and director’s master plan, rather than something to be explained in a “Hah hah look how intelligent we are that we know how horror films work!,” manner.

This is about the point in the review where I’m hitting the wall in terms of what I can comfortably share with you gentle readers without spoiling the singularly unique experience of The Cabin in the Woods. I am quite sorry, as this is going to turn into a bit of a shit review, just for this sake, but you have to understand that basically everything after the half hour mark ratchets the film up to a crazy level of intensity and weirdness while still managing to continuously build on the ideas and scenarios. This pacing continues right up until the final fifteen minutes, which features one of the wildest sequences you’re going to find in any recent horror movie, all leading to a beautiful, John Carpenter-esque ending.

If I say a whole lot more (and I really really reeeally want to!), I’d ruin people’s enjoyment of this movie fairly deeply, and I don’t want that. The Cabin in the Woods is a true original, effortlessly deconstructing the horror genre while also providing the most exciting horror movie in years. Everyone’s going to be talking about it, and it’s got the surefire potential to be a massive cult hit if it doesn’t light the box office on fire. Every couple of years, there’s always THE keystone genre movie that gets everyone talking and excited. Most times, you get a mediocre movie with pretensions of greatness like Donnie Darko. Once in a while, though, you get something like The Cabin in the Woods, and man, is it worth it. Do not miss it.

Geoff Henao: If you’re familiar with Flixist, you’ll know that I tend to stray away from horror films. Simply put, they’re not my type of films. However, what Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard were able to accomplish with Cabin in the Woods just might have converted me, if only for the time being. The film was able to successfully and creatively twist and exploit the very characteristic tropes and cliches that make up the foundation of the horror genre, and portray them in a way that could potentially change the way horror films are made. That might be hyperbolic, but if Cabin in the Woods clicks with the right people, it could very well be the beginning of a new wave of horror films. 87 – Exceptional.

Allistair Pinsof: Cabin in the Woods isn’t the movie you may expect it to be. It also doesn’t end up being the movie that the opening 15 minutes hints at. It’s rare that a movie continuously plays against expectations in this day and age, but writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard manage to pull this off through spirited, bold writing. Behind the deconstruction of horror tropes, the two touch upon truly heavy material that asks us to question the nature of our enjoyment of horror and the cost of ending human suffering. The film is also full of moments of genuine tension, horrific spectacle, and attempts at humor so twisted and bizarre that you can’t help but laugh. However, with this ambition and wide scope in storytelling, atmosphere is sacrificed. In this sense, Cabin in the Woods falls short of being a truly great horror film. It’s one hell of a post-horror film, though! – 84 – Great

Hubert Vigilla: There was a study last year that said spoilers don’t necessarily ruin the enjoyment of a story. While that’s true in some cases, The Cabin in the Woods serves as a strong rebuke. Don’t get me wrong: the film would still be enjoyable if I knew what was going to happen, but there’s a thrill to being surprised and having your expectations subverted (and occasionally confirmed). Not only is The Cabin in the Woods a celebration and enrichment of horror movie ideas, it makes the case that surprises can be valid aesthetic experiences; that surprise may even be an essential part of how we experience art. There’s such an anarchic creativity to what Goddard and Whedon have achieved, and it goes far beyond previous horror-deconstruction movies. Too often those films feel like mere sightseeing — they’re too detached, the posturing is too cool. By comparison, The Cabin in the Woods is like watching two insane kid geniuses locked in a giant toy store and simply told, “Go.” 88 – Exceptional

Andres Bolivar: What Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard accomplished is something I never thought could be successfully achieved. With The Cabin in the Woods, we have a genuinely smart film that delivers laughs, frights and a buttf*ck of a twist(s). Most importantly, Goddard and Whedon have crafted this brilliant homage to the horror tropes we all know and love and executed in a manner that doesn’t beat you over the head with it or comes off as the writer masturbating over how smart he is and “finishing” all over final draft. It is an epic deranged film that is insane and completely unapologetic. It’s the film Scream wished it was and what Evil Dead would’ve been if it had a budget. I cannot stress how important The Cabin in the Woods is to the horror genre, much less cinema in general. 95 – Ultimate