It’s hard to talk about all the things I liked about The Cabin in the Woods without getting deep into spoiler territory. I’m loathe to do that even though chances are, if you’ve read any reviews at all, or even looked at the imdb page, you won’t be going into this film completely fresh. Suffice it to say that this is much more than your typical teens-terrorized-in-the-haunted-cabin film. MUCH more. A big clue that writer/director Drew Goddard has something a little deeper in mind is hinted at in the poster. The cabin is reminiscent of a Rubik’s Cube or an M. C. Escher print, hinting that there are puzzles to be solved, and that doors and stairways may not always lead to where we think they should. I’d somehow missed all the marketing for this film, and I’m not normally a horror fan, though my wife is. I didn’t have very high expectations going in. I was in for a very pleasant surprise!
It starts, not as most horror stories do, with a group of photogenic college students, but rather, with two technicians in wrinkled white shirts and thin black ties, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford). As they go about their work in a control room reminiscent of the one from Apollo 13 (1995), though not quite as grand, they seem to belong in another type of film altogether. They are preparing for some sort of mission, and they go about it with the easy familiarity born of assured competence. It’s as if they’ve done this job many times before, an idea which becomes very disturbing as the story progresses. After an incredibly brief title sequence, the action moves to those young adults we were expecting, a group of friends gearing up for a weekend trip to the titular cabin. The ensemble is made up of the requisite nymphette (Anna Hutchinson), her not-quite virginal friend (Kristen Connelly), the jock (Chris Hemsworth), and the bookish tag-along (Jesse Williams), all who would be right at home in an Abercrombie print ad. Especially amusing, though, was the entrance of our stoner/comic relief (Fran Kranz) who’s toting a bong so ingenious, it’s a wonder Tommy Chong’s company doesn’t have a merchandising tie-in. I don’t smoke weed, but I want one as a conversation piece. Once everything is packed, they all pile into an RV and obliviously make their way into what we have been conditioned to know is certain doom. At first, and indeed, throughout the film, this group is played as a collection of stereotypes. There’s nothing here character-wise that we haven’t seen before, but maybe that’s the point. It would be possible to exchange any one of them for the corresponding character in another slasher film and not even notice. They aren’t boring to watch, exactly, but I was initially put off by the lack of originality. By the end, I understood the brilliance of it.
It’s clear almost from the start that the two technicians have some connection to the college students, but we are left to wonder exactly what until further on. At first, I found the incongruity jarring as the action cut from the students to the technicians and back again, but first-time director Goddard does a good job of both doling out the information at just the right pace and moving back and forth between the two settings. It kept me guessing at what was really happening and ceased to be a problem after the first two or three jumps. In addition to the characters, all the other typical horror movie clichés are present as well, the cabin that seems much larger on the inside than out, a basement collection of very creepy items… There’s even a menacing gas station owner cum harbinger of doom, and the way the other characters interact with him provides some of the biggest laughs of the film, and that’s saying something. It’s worth noting that this is a very funny movie, and the laughter comes at times when it is most appropriate. Goddard uses humor both to cut tension that has built to the point of being almost unbearable and to lull the audience into complacency before delivering pieces of shocking violence. I laughed out loud several times, especially toward the end as the situation got more and more bizarre, and the story turned out to be so incredibly different from what it started out as. One warning, though, as the film goes on, it becomes increasingly bloody. Astoundingly bloody. So much blood, in fact, it makes the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves look like an episode of Eight is Enough. It is a staggering amount of blood and viscera. Oddly, though, it doesn’t feel inappropriate at all. Rather, it is perfectly realistic, considering the horrific circumstances.
If there is any criticism here, it’s that the film is vaguely reminiscent of Scream (1996) in it’s self-awareness. In fact, there are times when different characters remark that things, “don’t feel right,” and while they are referring to the situation they find themselves in, we know more than they do how right they are. There is also a scene where one character begins to act in a way we would consider rational but is then clumsily persuaded to do otherwise. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if another character hadn’t just brought up the concept of free will just minutes before. It’s a minor hiccup, though, in an otherwise well-written script. I don’t feel like I can say anything further about the plot without ruining what are some very nice surprises, including a cameo at the end that absolutely SHOULD NOT BE LISTED FIRST ON IMDB.COM, but that’s just my opinion. Suffice it to say that horror fans will most definitely find something to love here, as it explores aspects of the genre they might not have previously considered. There are many references to other movies, some subtle, some obvious, and it’s definitely a film I’ll be seeing several more times, as I’m sure there are things I missed. Even knowing how it ends, it should still manage to provide more chills and laughter upon repeated viewings.