Warning – Spoilers ahead.
Shelved in 2009 thanks to MGM’s money troubles, The Cabin in the Woods hits cinemas in 2012 and has lost none of its impact over the last three years. Joss Whedon’s, hyper-intelligent, hilarious and knowing take on the meta-horror genre, pioneered by Wes Craven (although Whedon has plenty of experience in the field thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer), is ridiculously entertaining, and one of the most enjoyable and memorable film experiences of the year so far. However, it must be noted that is perhaps advantageous to not read this review or even watch the trailer, as CITW is something to be best experienced without any prior knowledge of the plot.
It starts with a bang, an enormous noise and blood red lettering superimposed over a seemingly ordinary scene of two white collar workers driving a small buggy through their workplace, before cutting to our cabin-bound heroes. They consist of 5 stereotypical horror ciphers (the jock, the stoner, the sensitive guy, the slut and the almost virgin) heading towards the titular log house, meeting a creepy gas station attendant along the way. You’ve seen this all before. Except you haven’t. You really haven’t.
These sequences of wooded, zombie redneck slashing are interspersed with shots of those perpetrating, or at least controlling, the violence, creating a fascinating mystery away from our central characters up until it takes a turn for the utterly batshit insane and ridiculously gory towards the finale, which unfortunately peters out just at the absolute final stretch with an oddly downbeat ending. Throughout the movie there are sly suggestions that every horror flick has been engineered by the behind the scenes company, particularly with nods and winks to hardcore horror fans (‘Japan has a spotless record’, claims one of the employees).
The meta aspect allows Whedon’s script to be packed with humour, and is often actively laugh out loud funny, with Fran Kranz’s weed smoking fool stealing all the best lines for the kids and Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford for the enigmatic agency. However, this comes with a price of actual fear. Granted, there are some jump scares but nothing sticks psychologically, as seeing some of the film from the villains’ (or are they?) point of view naturally strips the film of some of its potential tension. But nothing can take away from the fact that this is one of the most intelligent films in recent memory, with a zinging story, an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the old horror tropes and straight razor sharp dialogue.
The cast delivers this screenplay very well, in particular the adults watching the events with a cold disconnect, with the youth’s performances being less important, as they generally play the role of fodder for the monsters. Richard Jenkins and Fran Kranz steal the show, away from a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth in the starring role (if the delay had not happened he may not have been in the top billing without the Marvel-based publicity). Also, look out for a nicely surprising cameo from an old hat of science fiction horror.
Drew Goddard’s direction and the technical components are nearly faultless (apart from the obviously CG blood flowing through some temple-esque environment), cutting seamlessly or jarringly, depending on the current ambience, from scene to scene and it would take multiple viewings or a long pause on the DVD to pick up on all the visual treats, references and jokes hidden around the runtime and it all takes a turn for the spectacular in the last 20/30 minutes with convincingly creepy creatures running riot in an absolute bloodbath which contains a man being killed by a unicorn.
We should all be very glad that Cabin in the Woods has finally been released, as it is an absolute master-class in its admittedly small genre, trading real scares for one the most individual and breathlessly entertaining efforts in 2012, and the flaws are very easy to overlook. Its genius may be lost on the less film-savvy audience, but for anyone with a background knowledge in horror who is willing to accept that all the clichés are very much deliberate, although it successfully avoids being a spoof, will find an enormous amount to enjoy here. And there’s a Batdragon. If you don’t know what that is, then educate yourself at your closest cinema as swiftly as possible.
Director: Drew Goddard
Writers: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Stars: Fran Kranz, Kristen Connolly, Richard Jenkins
Run Time: 95 minutes