Let me be up front with you: THIS REVIEW IS INCREDIBLY SPOILERY. If you’re here looking for advice on whether you should watch this movie, I give you a firm, unconditional ‘yes.’ It’s smart, funny, and manages to get both effective horror beats and the often contradictory joy in subverting them that horror fans love to talk about and riff on. I think it’s easily one of the best horror movies in several years, and cannot recommend it enough.
Now please go and see it, because I want to talk about it, and the joy of discovery is a lot of the fun. Come back afterwards, and we can have a discussion.
Cabin in the Woods is the Drew Goddard directed, Joss Whedon scripted horror movie that sat on a shelf in the burning wreckage of MGM for well over a year, only emerging now that all of that mess is settled. It managed to make it out fully intact, riding the growing buzz Whedon’s had now that Dollhouse has mostly disappeared from the public consciousness and The Avengers is right around the corner. Thankfully, the film doesn’t really suffer from this time away, and in fact it’s throwback, subgenre mashup nature benefits from feeling slightly dated in style and casting. Seeing Chris Hemsworth pre-Thor is a strange alternate universe treat all in itself.
By now, assuming you’ve seen it, you know that Cabin in the Woods is two movies that dovetail together nicely. One is five teenagers who head off for a classic weekend of juvenile debauchery and fun in a ramshackle cabin that a relative owns and seemingly doesn’t use. This is every classic slasher setup from Evil Dead to Friday the 13th, and it’s played mostly straight. The kids pair off into couples, with the third wheel a slacker/stoner (Fran Kranz) keeping up the color commentary against the four more conventional kids. You have your jock (Hemsworth), the popular hot blonde (Anna Hutchinson), the brainy good guy who seems most ready to be fodder (Jesse Williams), and the virtuous young heroine who is instantly flagged as our Lead Girl (Kristen Connolly). On their trip far off the beaten path, they even run into a crazy old hick type who tries to chase them off, the trope of nearly every remote teen slaughter-fest of the 80s.
The second story, the one we’re presented with as almost a non-sequitor, concerns two working stiffs in some high tech compound, joking around and complaining about an upcoming project. These two, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, are quickly revealed as two parts of an elaborate worldwide underground (both literally and figuratively) program that orchestrates the kinds of stock horror experiences seen in movies around the world. Their bunker, deep below this cabin, is a control center by which they orchestrate the movements of the kids into the cabin, and set up an elaborate program which will subject them to the classic 80s slasher ‘monsters in the woods’ scenario. This is where much of the early humor comes from, as Jenkins and Whitford drolly set up betting pools on how these kids will meet their demise, and begin to manipulate the behavior of the residents in the cabin through chemical and mechanical means to get them to seal their own fates.
Most of that is already established in the trailer, but the reasons behind it are what make the hook so interesting: their organization has to construct these horror rituals to sacrifice the traditional number of teens in order to appease some dark evil god they have sealed deep underneath the compound. If they don’t get these archetypes together, and murder them off one by one, then the dark god will awaken and wreak the sorts of biblical terror spoken of in myths and legends. And they have a problem—while many locations exist around the world, each running programs that use the archetypes we most associate with that country’s horror films (dark haired curse girls in Japan, or folk beasts come to life in South America), many of the other programs have failed to complete the ritual. It’s up to the US group to get it right, or all will be lost.
What works here is the mythology that’s constructed not just for this world, but for horror films in general. These archetypes aren’t just the tropes of dozens of movies, they’re required by the beast. A ‘jock,’ a ‘slut,’ a ‘brain,’ a ‘fool,’ and a ‘virgin’ must all fall prey to horrors they bring upon themselves. The guys downstairs are just there to hurry the process along a little. That includes tainted hair dye to turn the blonde into the promiscuous bimbo of so many teen slashers, or pheromones to tempt the couples into falling into ‘sin.’ It also means that they stack the deck: at a switch they force a door to the cellar open, where dozens of plot devices are stored, from evil books to haunted lockets to puzzle devices with the power to raise hell. The controllers can’t ‘force’ them to seal their fate with any object, but they can sure suggest it, and finally the kids end up unleashing the sadistic zombified remains of the cabin’s prior inhabitants.
There’s a lot of the obvious ‘scare’ moments from horror films presented here, but none of them are played as actual moments of horror. They’re absolutely meta, meant to be a wink and a nod to an audience who has seen them all before and can rattle off a dozen instances of each with the kind of encyclopedic knowledge that would likely put the middle management controllers to shame. Which is fine, because I think any horror fan would tell you that at a certain point most horror films (especially of these stock genres) simply cease to be scary. And most of them would hold up as one of the greatest horror movies a movie that isn’t scary at all, and which bears a great resemblance to Cabin in the Woods: Evil Dead II.
That’s right, I’m saying it. More than even Scream or a dozen other postmodern attempts at subversive horror comedy, Cabin in the Woods is the smartest successor to Evil Dead II that’s come along. And it’s all about the small touches, the kinds of world-building that Whedon (of whom I’m generally on record as not a fan of) does well when given a rich playground to realize that structure in. Do the kids act out of character, in ways that make audiences scream ‘Don’t go in there, you idiot!’? Absolutely. But Cabin in the Woods is a movie that shows that these people, who you kind of want to root for because of their sheer helplessness, didn’t mean to do that stuff. When they wanted to act rationally, the controllers released gas that muddled their reasoning, and whispered suggestions that the kids were in no condition to fight.
But what Cabin gets so right is that horror is rarely about the threat, it’s about the people. You care about the kids, who all seem like decent people stuck in an awful situation; but you also care about these controllers, these folks who have seen it all and are jaded about the horrors they inflict, but do what they do for a very good reason. It’s a personal agency versus greater good scenario, and for the genre it has a surprising amount of tonal nuance. Do you root for the horror movie victims and seal the greater fate of the world? Do you hope they die and recognize the kind of awful moral damage that kind of mindset actually represents? It’s a no-win scenario, and that brings with it a sort of thematic nihilism that is often buried in Whedon’s work, brought out on full display here.
Not that Cabin isn’t fun or inventive. The jokes all land pretty squarely, and the level of self-awareness never gets in the way of telling a story where people act like human beings. It descends (or ascends) as the movie goes on into a full embrace of this institutional horror structure, as those who survive the threat above end up outsmarting the machinations of the overworked, overstressed controllers and breaking into the underground complex. Here, they see just how impressive the menagerie of horrors is, in a gallery of monsters that would bring any horror fan into total glee. There’s a faux Pinhead, creepy living dolls, ghosts, zombies of the fast/slow and smart/dumb varieties, ghosts, ghoulish children (including the twins from The Shining), serial slashers, giant bats and snakes and werewolves, even a unicorn.
And how that zoo of horror history gets utilized, unleashed into an orgy of fandom celebration, that really is the height of what Cabin has to offer. It’s a movie for those of us who remember staying up way past their bedtime as children to watch one more shitty horror sequel, delighted at the monsters and the ritual of the victims and the way we’d see the same stories play out again and again but didn’t really care because we enjoyed it all so damn much. Cabin in the Woods isn’t just a self-referential meta-comedy on horror, it’s a celebration of its history, a serious but not grim look at what it is and what it can be.
It’s undoubtedly not going to convert people who don’t enjoy the genre, but it never attempts to break out of those bonds. Cabin would argue that isn’t not necessary, that what we want and what we crave is the familiar, the old tropes that we love because they work and because we know them so well. Horror is often silly and even stupid, rarely scary, mostly bloody and repetitive, and Cabin reminds us that that’s not only okay, but that’s what brings us into the doors of the theater and in front of the screen again in again. It is the love letter to a genre that needs some love, a champion to a genre that so often seems embarrassed by its legacy. In that respect, it is all the tribute and testament a horror fan needs. Thank god it’s also a fantastic film.