If you’re trying to avoid spoilers, look elsewhere. Talking about this film is very difficult without giving away some key points. So, consider yourself warned.
A good rule of thumb for low-budget filmmaking is to be wary of any film that announces itself as a cult classic before it even hits the theaters. Remember Grindhouse? A true cult classic has something sublime that happens despite the intentions of the filmmakers. Evil Dead wasn’t intended to be a cult film; neither was Night of the Living Dead or Brain Dead. The directors of those films all made a sincere effort to make a movie they thought was fun and honest to fans of the genre, without an overtly self-conscious camp style. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever teetered on the edge of ridiculousness, but didn’t quite fall to its doom. So, a film like Cabin in the Woods should cause some anxiety in the learned horror fan.
Producer/Writer Joss Whedon and Director/Writer Drew Goddard wanted to make a horror film they would enjoy, setting out to break away from the trend set in motion by Saw and Hostel. A noble cause for sure, but Joss Whedon is not known for making serious horror films and Drew Goddard wrote Cloverfield. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly are fun, fan favorites, but they mostly flirt with the shadows that scary movies have to embrace. Cabin in the Woods could very well have been a horror movie for the Twilight crowd. Happily, it is nothing like that.
Much has been made about keeping aspects of the film under wraps, no doubt a move to generate hype that harkens back to the b-movie glory of the films of William Castle. This is a bit of a trick, as there isn’t much in the film that wouldn’t occur to a student of the genre or a smart viewer. Whedon and Goddard reveal what would’ve been the twist ending in the first moments of the film. The audience knows from the start that out hapless band of college kids are being swept into an arena of some sort, for some dark purpose. Not far into the film, we learn that it might be in everyone’s best interest if all of them are killed in fine horror film fashion. Knowing this, the audience is torn whether to root for the kids or the creatures, and the suspense is enhanced by a special kind of anxiety. This keeps things entertaining and makes the laughs an opportune escape. As much as this film is homage to horror films, it’s not aiming for scares but locked straight on to chuckles.
There are plenty of surprises, though, most of the kills happen in an unexpected moment. Holden’s (Jesse Williams) death is a genuine surprise and nicely foreshadowed a few innocuous cuts earlier. Marty’s (Fran Kranz) return from the dead is pleasantly unexpected and drives the third act of the film forward. He is probably the most sympathetic character for most of this film’s target audience, and having him back was a pleasure and a relief. There are a few character surprises, too. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the protypical alpha jock, is revealed to be a great student and usually more of a quiet guy. Jules (Anna Hutchinson), is mostly the standard blonde sexpot, so the most unexpected thing with her is how soon she meets her doom. The constant ambiguity about Dana’s (Kristen Connolly) virginity is a successful running joke. Most importantly, the performances of the group treat the script with dexterity. They know they are crossing a ledge between camp and creep and never topple over the edge. The great joke and the great surprise is that they out-act most actors in serious mainstream horror films. As ridiculous as the film may get, they treat it as the audience might, with grim acceptance and humor.
The special effects are a key part of any creature feature. Cabin in the Woods wisely treats the creatures with respect and style. The Buckner redneck zombie family all look plenty spooky and dead and could just as well come from a Rob Zombie film. They make it clear that they are not supposed to be funny. Unfortunately, once the Pandora’s Box of monsters is opened, the attention to detail slips a few steps. Reptilius is cool, but looks a little too close to any number of SyFy critters of the week. Likewise, the Wraith has a cheap look about it, which is only made starker by the accomplished looks of the Werewolf, the Sugarplum Fairy, and Merman. Perhaps this is a subtle dig at CGI, but I expect it’s more an unfortunate result of reliance on CGI. I was disappointed that the Hell Demon struck me as more of a cheap rip-off of Pinhead than an original creature design. Pinhead deserves his due, but this creature looked like a poor imitation dreamt up by a desperate producer. A judgment that clearly doesn’t apply to Cabin in the Woods’ horror loving filmmakers. The final Ancient One was more Troll Hunter than The Call of Cthulu, and that has good points and bad. Didn’t we all really want to see a mass of tentacles break out of the ground? Maybe a kaiju?
There is no arguing that Cabin in the Woods is a film to be excited about. Horror fans will celebrate the return of creature features, Whedon fans will revel in a new product they can all get behind, and reluctant dates will find plenty to laugh at. Rather than relying on references to better films, it creates plenty of its own original notes. The film will reward multiple viewings and can live on in midnight screenings, drinking games and fan films. However, many critics in the blogosphere are calling it a “game changer” or somehow forcing the genre in a new direction. This sentiment reveals a lack of understanding of horror filmmaking and the community that supports it. There is nothing “game changing” in this movie. Cabin in the Woods is another excellent play in a very long-running game, to continue the metaphor. Dark filmmakers, horror filmmakers, and weird filmmakers of all stripes who take their work seriously are seeking to surprise and challenge the audience. Every good horror film is a surprise that both thwarts and rewards the audience expectations. Knowing what is coming for you is a staple of action filmmaking, but the shifting unknown is the realm of fright nights and creep shows. No doubt there will be a wave of imitations, some good, most bad, but that is a common move in big league movie gameplay.
As excited as I am about Cabin in the Woods, there is a bittersweet aftertaste to it all. When can we have a new classic serious horror film? When is the next Exorcist, Psycho or Zombie? Better yet, when will all these of critics who cry “game changer” turn their attention to Ti West, Chan-wook Park, or Mike Flanagan? Horror films have always thrived on the edges and fringes of culture, often shriveling in the daylight of mainstream attention. Cabin in the Woods won’t change this, and if anything, it shows the game is played the same as it ever was and has been for eons. You can bet on that.
Article first published as Movie Review: Cabin in the Woods - The Endless Game on Blogcritics.