Before I went to see The Cabin in the Woods there was one thing I heard almost everyone say about the movie: don’t let anyone spoil it for you. The consensus seemed to be that the movie had an amazing twist early on that must be experienced in the moment or it just wouldn’t have the same impact. Now I’m a dutiful film lover, and so, I did exactly that and avoided knowing everything there was to know about the film. Having seen the movie I’ve come to the conclusion that the effort I put into avoiding these early “twists” was a waste of time. Sure, there are late stage developments in the film which are best left a secret, but the film tips its hand fairly early and it has a concept which is interesting but hardly some kind of shocking twist. As such, I’m not playing along with this “talk about a movie without actually talking about it” game that a lot of other online critics have been playing. This is going to be a “spoiler review” in the sense that it talks about the movie’s basic plot and tone, but I won’t be giving away anything that I wouldn’t reveal in any average film. I won’t be giving away the film’s ending, but the first act will be fair game. Those looking to know nothing about the film before entering the theater would be best served looking elsewhere.
The Cabin in the Woods begins in a huge industrial science facility (think Black Mesa but on a smaller budget) where two lab workers named Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Richard Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) are having a conversation about some kind of annual experiment they’re getting ready to run once again. The film then cuts away from this facility and we’re introduced to a group of college students getting ready for a wild trip to a cabin that is in the woods. The characters will be recognized by anyone who’s familiar with slasher films: there’s a jock (Chris Hemsworth), his slutty girlfriend (Anna Hutchison), her more reserved friend (Kristen Connolly), the nice guy that she’s likely to be attracted towards (Jesse Williams), and a comic relief dude who smokes a lot of weed (Fran Kranz). Their journey begins to fit the typical trajectory of a slasher movie to a T, almost too closely. We soon come to learn that this cabin is under the control of the lab techs from the beginning of the film and they’re manipulating these young people’s journey for nefarious and ultimately deadly ends.
Part of what people are trying to conceal by staying “spoiler-free” about this movie is that it isn’t a straightforward horror movie… at all. In fact it barely qualifies as a horror-comedy; it’s pretty much a straight up comedy that plays off of horror tropes. There’s nothing here that anyone with any kind of horror experience would call “scary” or even “suspenseful” outside of a couple of jump scares (which in themselves are just in the film in order to make fun of jump scares). That’s not to say that this is a genre parody like Scary Movie or even a movie that actively expects its audience to laugh at it, it’s more of a deconstruction of the horror genre that sort of smirks at the audience as it points out all the tropes that it’s exploring. It’s not the first movie that’s done this. In fact, I doubt there’s a single genre that’s needs further deconstruction less than the slasher film. That genre’s conventions (the warnings of the crazy old man, the deaths of the horny/stoned friends, the final girl, etc) have been commented on endlessly in movies like Scream (and its sequels), Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and other like minded corners of popular culture.
For much of its running time, these bits in the industrial facility are the best thing that The Cabin in The Woods has going for it. Bradley Whitford (last seen in T.V.’s The West Wing) creates a remarkably slimy character who’s fun to hate, and the basic concept of a world where people are essentially trying to recreate horror films in a test tube is certainly interesting. It’s so interesting that it’s kind of a let-down whenever the movie cuts to the actual cabin and we have to actually watch these teenagers go through all the same old horror clichés that the film is supposed to be making fun of. As for the actual jokes, well, I wasn’t as amused by them as the rest of the audience seemed to be. Then again I’ve rarely been on the same wave-length as most people when it comes to Joss Whedon, who served as the film’s co-writer. I’ve always found Whedon’s films to be irritatingly snarky and gratingly insincere and this film is only an exception in that it never pretends to be anything else. The film never tries to make you care about any of its characters, it never tries to become a great adventure that we’re supposed to invest in in-between the jokes at the expense of said adventure; here it’s all anarchic snark from the word go, and while I find that somewhat more honest I can’t say I was liking it any more than I have before.
For example, do remember that scene in Deep Blue Sea where Samuel L. Jackson gives a rousing and inspiring speech and then immediately gets eaten by a shark? Well there’s a scene just like that here… and then another scene just like it some ten minutes later. That’s around the point I was about ready to write this movie off as a silly failure, but then something happened. A twist happened (the kind of twist that actually is a spoiler and which I won’t give away), which led to a set piece that was simply too awesome to be denied. One part Aliens and one part “Imaginationland,” this final sequence is pandering of the highest order and I’m tempted to say the film is worth seeing for these twenty minutes alone. However, once the rush of that finale wore off I was left to reflect on the movie as a whole and I still feel it was lacking. Of course I’m usually in the minority when it comes to Joss Whedon and this is certainly no exception. I see why people like the guy, but I just can’t stand how the guy constantly pulls the rug out from beneath his own stories at every turn and while that tendency seems more appropriate here than in some of his other projects I still just can’t get behind it.
**1/2 out of Four