More than most films, when reviewing The Cabin in the Woods, the first question one asks is how closely one must hew to the guidelines set out by the film's creators.
It is probably not news that producer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers) and director Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) have implored critics, podcasters and audience members to try their best not to spoil the many twists and turns that they have baked into their thriller satire.
Reviewers have approached this request with at least a modicum of respect, excepting a few tongue-in-cheek attempts at humor. For example, the Village Voice review should only be read by somebody who has seen the film, because it gives away the ending in the first sentence!
In the end though, Whedon and Goddard's much publicized entreaty for radio silence is strangely misplaced. For The Cabin in the Woods is not really constructed as a whiplash inducing plot twister. Indeed, if you are looking for that floor-dropping-out-from-under-you feeling induced by such mind-benders as The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects or The Matrix, you may be very, very disappointed.
Rather than a brain teaser, or labyrinthine philosophical puzzle, this masquerading horror film is actually more akin to an open-ended mid-term question that students are expected to elaborate on at length in blue books that will never be cracked by the professor.
Let's start at the beginning of the syllabus though. The titular abode in the forest is the destination of five college friends seeking to blow off steam on a long weekend, but, right away, you sense that not all of them will be coming back.
If you think you've seen this movie before, that's the point!
Like Wes Craven's franchise engendering, genre-prodding Scream, Whedon and company know you've seen it all before and they aren't even going to try to pretend you haven't. Almost everything in the opening sequences of the college romp into the deep woods is by the numbers...only it isn't.
The young, attractive cast of stereotypical slasher prey display some strange divergences from the norm in these pictures. Chris Hemsworth's jock archetype, for instance, has a deep knowledge of economic theory and the stoner character, played with great aplomb by Franz Kranz, has a pretty rational and lucid handle on the increasingly weird situation in which the crew finds themselves.
Also, there is that creepy cabin, the road to which runs by an abandoned gas station, naturally attended by a sun-wrinkled, grouchy red neck who warns the students of the dangers ahead. This harbinger of doom seems to be plucked right from central casting and the cabin seems constructed from the same wood as the forest cottage in Sam Raimi's ground-breaking film The Evil Dead. This all seems so perfect that we aren't scared as much as we are amused.
Once the kids arrive at their destination a nice sequence unfolds. One of the men discovers, behind a rather gruesome painting, a two way mirror that allows him to see into the adjoining room of one of the sexy coeds. However, the scene doesn't go as we are expecting, and indeed it flips our expectations. Who is watching whom? Why would we watch? Do we have the power to look away?
However, we have already been tipped off to these questions and themes through the introduction of a completely different set of characters. And here's where that spoiler question I talked about comes into play.
Trying to honor the filmmakers as best I can, I'll just briefly explain that within the first few minutes, as we are getting to know these young lambs heading to the horror movie slaughter, we are also introduced to two bureaucratic engineer-types operating at some vast-Pentagon-like war room. Portrayed humorously by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins complete with ties and white, short-short sleeve shirts these two seem to have wandered in from Mike Judge's workplace satire Office Space.
|"Somebody has a case of the Mondays!"|
From the start, Cabin in the Woods is about the interplay of these two worlds and my guess is the filmmakers were relying on our continued interest in exactly how these worlds connect to buoy their experiment. Unfortunately, too many cats are let out of the bag too early. We're ahead of the movie a bit through most of its running time, and, after a while, I got a little impatient waiting for these two worlds to intersect. It does happen, but it is very late in the game.
The collision of these two story lines unleashes a frenetic orgy of non-stop horror jokiness that is so blood- drenched that you can't help but giggle with delight at the pure audacity of it. However, I also couldn't help but think that it was overcompensating for the film's flimsy and slightly boring middle section.
The Cabin in the Woods is amusing enough and has its moments that illuminate its themes brilliantly, but without showing a real flair for horror, or for conspiracy, we are left with bald satire that doesn't really have a strong enough spine.
Some great filmmakers have tried to twist genres inside out with more successful results artistically. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and his thriller take Eyes Wide Shut are an example. And Michael Haneke subverted the expectations of the horror genre with his movie Funny Games.
It doesn't appear that Whedon and Goddard are attempting the same sort of experiments that Kubrick and Haneke did, and their movie is a lot of fun despite that, but I found myself wishing they had tried a little harder.
I will give them this though, they really go for broke with the ending of this movie, and, while not a real twist, it is delightfully subversive.
And unlike that Village Voice reviewer, I'll keep it confidential!