Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabin in the Woods, the genre-twisting feature, from the team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, that satirizes horror movie conventions within a larger science fiction framework as it tells the tale of five college-age friends who are secretly manipulated by a mysterious high-tech agency during a weekend getaway at a mountain lake. Filmed in 2009, it was held from release by the bankruptcy of its studio, MGM, which could not afford the cost of marketing and publicity; eventually picked up by Lionsgate Films, it finally hit screens in early 2012, when the long anticipation by Whedon’s many fans turned it into a major box office success. Lauded by many critics for its clever restructuring and skewering of the “slasher movie” genre, it managed to find its way onto several best-of-2012 lists in addition to becoming one of the year’s biggest financial hits.
The movie begins with the back-and-forth intercutting between scenes of a large-scale government tech lab where final preparations are under way for an elaborate and unspecified project, and a group of five young people getting ready for a trip to a secluded mountain cabin. The kids- Dana (the sweet and comparatively wholesome “good girl”), Jules (the bleached-blonde sexpot), Curt (Jules’ jock boyfriend), Holden (Curt’s studious friend, brought along as a blind date for Dana), and Marty (the pot-smoking nerd)- set out in an RV, and, though they have an unsettling encounter with the attendant at a run-down gas station on the road to the cabin, they remain in high spirits, looking forward to a weekend of good times. Meanwhile, it becomes clear they are being remotely monitored by the technicians in the mysterious lab, who seem to have complete control over their environment. Upon arrival at their destination, the five friends discover that the cabin- recently purchased by a cousin of Curt’s- is an odd and disconcerting place, adorned with gruesome art, fearsome stuffed animals, and see-through mirrors, and they eventually stumble upon a trap door which leads to a secret basement full of odd and arcane relics. Among these objects they find a diary, written by the daughter of the cabin’s original owners; as Dana reads it aloud, it reveals a horrific tale of torture, disfigurement, and murder, practiced by the family in the service of their twisted puritanical beliefs, and includes a strange Latin invocation- which she also reads aloud, unwittingly calling the long-deceased clan back from the dead. Perhaps even more sinister is the fact that all of these events seem to be under the orchestration of the observing lab technicians, who watch with satisfied interest as the murderous zombies slink towards the unsuspecting young people in the cabin. Needless to say, the weekend getaway is soon to become a terrifying fight for survival, in which the would-be victims will discover that their perilous situation has larger implications more dire than any of them could suspect.
The screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods was co-written by Whedon and Goddard, who worked together on Whedon’s cult-classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; though it took them only three days to write, it is undeniably clever. It’s difficult to discuss it in much detail without giving away too many of its secrets, but it is safe to describe it as a mash-up of Friday the Thirteenth and Night of the Living Dead as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft. This in itself is creative enough, but it’s also apparent that the pair have a definite agenda here, in which they use a sort of meta-drama- self-consciously utilizing all the stock characters and conceits of the slasher film scenario- to explore the deeper psychological origins of the horror genre, linking it both to its ancient roots in the superstitions and religions of ancient cultural memory and to its modern role as a fetishized outlet for the primordial and antisocial urges that still lie at its core. The story of the five not-so-innocent kids is enfolded into a larger plot that allegorizes the makers of such formulaic horror vehicles themselves, using an elaborate metaphor to satirize their motivations and criticize the growing trend towards “torture porn” within the genre. The concept is ingenious, audacious and inspired; the writers have constructed a puzzle box of a movie, in which several layers of plot fit neatly inside each other, with each addressing larger and more significant themes, ultimately providing both homage to and an indictment of a genre which celebrates the bloodlust lurking in the core of human nature. At the same time, they endeavor to create a movie which works simultaneously as a high-concept art piece and a wildly entertaining example of schlock cinema. With the first goal, they come respectably close; with the second, however, they are much further from the mark.
On a conceptual level, The Cabin in the Woods works well; the underlying conceit, though veiled, is apparent from the beginning, allowing us to appreciate the way it informs the narrative as it gradually emerges to our full understanding. It’s a good choice, because on the surface level, what we are given is far too ordinary to hold our interest for long. The movie-in-a-movie storyline, with its hapless young victims being stalked and slaughtered one by one, is so familiar and predictable as to be completely devoid of shock; it’s deliberately derivative, of course, but the unimaginative, by-rote handling of the formula is no less dull for its intentions. To make matters worse, the dialogue, loaded with obligatory comic banter and snarky “fanboy” in-jokes, is stale and stilted, with a decidedly sophomoric reliance on cliché and self-indulgence; the characters, though an effort is made to give them more personality and depth than the typical stock figures in such fare, still behave like one-dimensional stereotypes, and despite the fact that we are clearly told that their actions are being manipulated by their white-collar puppeteers, again, it makes little difference to our level of emotional investment in them- or rather, our lack of it. It’s true that. as the movie expands from the killer zombie hillbilly scenario, they (the survivors anyway) are seen to have a little more on the ball than they’ve managed to show so far, but by the time this larger plot has taken over, so much screen time has been squandered on the regurgitation of shallow horror convention that it’s hard to care. Even though it happens too late in the game, the development of the framing plot, in which we discover the real horrors of the cabin in the woods, is far more original and engaging, though it, too, suffers from the malady of unconvincing dialogue; the film’s final quarter is so much more interesting that it heightens our disappointment over everything that has gone before. Still, when the movie finally reaches its endgame, fully revealing its devilishly clever dual purpose as a satirical exploration of form and a cynical commentary on human nature, it succeeds in winning us over with its sheer audacity, leaving us with a sort of grudging delight and making us wish that Whedon and Goddard had spent more than three days writing their screenplay.
The movie built on that script is certainly made well enough; directed by Goddard, with Whedon serving as producer (presumably too involved with his myriad other creative endeavors to get behind the camera on this one), it succeeds in emulating the stylistic sensibilities of the teen scream genre it draws from, using time-honored techniques of visual vocabulary to tell its story (with a good bit of sly humor) and expanding to a slicker, more contemporary mode as the focus shifts loose from the constraints of genre formula. There is nothing truly mind-blowing here, in terms of visual style or innovation, just smart utilization of the established tricks of the trade, but Goddard has clearly done his homework, and he pulls it off in a workmanlike fashion. More overtly impressive, from the standpoint of cinematic creativity, is the work of the movie’s designers and technicians, who give us a number of delicious visual treats, particularly in the climactic scenes involving an everything-but-the-kitchen sink catalogue of movie monsters ranging from the familiar (murderous clowns, werewolves, sadistic hell-spawn) to the not-so-familiar (a killer unicorn, a lamprey-faced ballerina, and a decidedly grotesque merman). These sequences were accomplished by an impressive assemblage of the finest effects artists and technicians in the industry, requiring the rental of extra facilities to accommodate the sheer number of workers, and shooting at the huge aerospace building of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, since the available studio space was inadequate for the necessary scale. The unprecedented effort was worth it- this section is by far the most fun and memorable few minutes in the movie, generating more actual laughs and thrills than the entire pick-em-off-one-by-one saga that takes up the first three-quarters of screen time.
The film’s other production values are solid, as well; the cinematography by Peter Deming, the musical score by David Julyan, the production design by Martin Whist – all these are several cuts above the level of the low-budget exploitation thrillers upon which The Cabin in the Woods depends for inspiration, which is not necessarily a good thing. A little amateurish roughness around the edges might have gone a long way towards bestowing Goddard’s film with more of the authentic grindhouse flavor it sorely needs. The higher quality is appreciated, however, when it comes to the performances, since bad acting is rarely a plus, and since the film requires a bit more nuance from its players than the typical horror entry. Though it’s notable that two of the cast members are Chris Hemsworth (as Curt) and Richard Jenkins (who shot their roles here before making it big as Thor and earning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor, respectively), the true stars are Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz, as Dana and Marty, who are both charming enough, and more importantly project the intelligence and spunk needed to make them into a convincing hero and heroine. Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are goofily likeable as the pair of elder-generation nerds who serve as team leaders for the mysterious behind-the-scenes project, and Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams, as the remainder of the youthful adventurers, succeed in making their characters more than the mere ciphers they might have been. Sigourney Weaver, who seems to have made a supplemental career for herself playing self-referential cameos in this kind of satirical sci-fi fare, makes a surprise appearance near the end, but disclosing the nature of her role would be too much of a spoiler; suffice to say that her presence onscreen is welcome and her performance is amusing without being over-the-top.
I suppose I should confess that I have never been particularly fond of the “slasher movie” sub-genre, though most of my generation, which grew up with them, seems to consider them essential touchstones of pop culture experience. I always thought they were predictable and dull, and rarely frightening; consequently, I am perhaps not the best person to judge the effectiveness of The Cabin in the Woods, either as a legitimate entry or as a parody. Many viewers have responded much more positively than I to Whedon and Goddard’s Lovecraftian mind-bender, but even I can say that it’s worth a look. Even though, ultimately, I found it as predictable and unengaging as the films it sends up, it contains many aspects that impressed me, and yes, even entertained me. For one thing, it has a lot more “heart” than most of these cold-blooded slaughter-fests, reminding us that alongside those savage instincts in our unconscious there are also nobler ones; though, in the end, the film’s “message,” if you can call it that, is cynical and even nihilistic, it leaves you with a more or less positive view of mankind- in the individual, if not in the collective. It’s also a very smart movie, with canny observations about human behavior on the personal, social, and cultural level, and it weaves these into its formulaic plot in a way that illuminates the stock situations and conventions, revealing the deeper implications of the well-worn narrative structure and helping us to see it as more than mere repetitive drivel. Finally, I can truly embrace its creators’ avowed purpose of decrying the level to which the horror genre has sunk in our modern era; most horror movies today are mindless spatter films, capitalizing on flavor-of-the-week trends and using sensationalistic formats to earn a quick buck and nothing more. At best, they are meaningless, and at worst, they are thought pollution, celebrating cruelty and violence for their own sake and reinforcing some very ugly behavioral tendencies in an audience that is typically of a very impressionable age. The Cabin in the Woods attempts to address this state of affairs by offering an alternative which both satisfies the need for a good scare and stimulates the intellect, as many (though certainly, admittedly, not all) of the so-called “old school” horror films tried to do. It’s very clever, alright; unfortunately, in the end, it’s too clever for its own good. Those who are likely to clue into the brainier aspects of the film will probably not respond to the horror, and those who are in it for the cheap thrills will undoubtedly be disinterested in any higher purpose. Of course, there is a convergent group of viewers- most of them, probably, already fans of Whedon’s nerdy-cool fictional universe- who will find both levels of The Cabin in the Woods right up their alley, and they are the ones for whom this movie is made. You might not be one of them, but it’s still worth watching; even if it doesn’t quite work (and even if it doesn’t look like it, at first glance), it’s refreshingly intelligent filmmaking. There’s precious little enough of that out there, so get it where you can.
WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that looking at the pictures below might be a mistake. I try not to provide spoilers, but some of these images might give things away that you don’t want to know ahead of time, and once you see something, you can’t unsee it, so view at your own risk.