As the rest of the months become increasingly reserved for last-minute two-screen release Oscar grabs and harsh acts of theatrical terrorism via the likes of Adam Sandler, I find myself looking forward to the late spring and summer movie season more and more with each passing year. I fully expected this year’s rich payload of cinematic treats to start delivering in earnest on May 4 with the release of The Avengers, April is usually nothing to get excited about. How wrong I was! Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard looked down from their respective mountains of unassailable nerd cred, saw us impatiently scouring the Internet for the latest promo images and trailer iterations and proclaimed, “Gentle summer movie fans, your wait is over! You shall be entertained!”. Truth be told, this movie’s been waiting around to see the light of day for a while. It was shot in 2009 and delayed not for a lack of studio interest, but due to Whedon and Goddard’s staunch refusal to allow it to be converted to 3D. Remember what I said about that unassailable nerd cred? Call it luck, or hope against hope that the demand for blurry, headache-inducing entertainment is on the decline, but either way this movie arrived at exactly the right time for me.
Now I will tell you up front, before any proper reviewing gets underway, that I loved literally everything about The Cabin in the Woods. You should go see it immediately. That being said, it is an experience brimming with rare surprises, and thus is going to be difficult for me to talk about while guaranteeing a hermetically sealed and spoiler-free environment. So you’ve been warned. I’m gonna throw up the break here, then there’s gonna be a poster, and after that I’ll not be responsible for ruining anything for anybody. I was serious when I said you should go to the theater and buy your ticket immediately. Okay, you’ve been warned. Here there be spoilers.
First off, let me say how much I enjoy this poster. The more I look at it, the more I like it, and it’s the only one I’ve seen for a while that I feel compelled to own. It’s a metaphor, the titular cabin is not literally a Hellraiser-style puzzle box. And how rare is it to see a movie poster these days, in any genre, that approaches the artistry of ye olden days? It’s an iconic image well executed, not overtly in your face, with a decent tagline. Most importantly, it’s not a shoddy Photoshop conglomerate of every actor involved. I applaud everyone involved for having a 30 million dollar horror movie starring a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth on their hands and resisting the urge to throw his face in there somewhere to move tickets.
Before showing the titles or introducing any of the principal actors, the film opens on Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) in what basically amounts to a television “cold opening”, starring characters that we won’t know much about for some time to come. It’s a successful tactic, quickly giving the audience a glimpse of the plot’s mysterious substrata and giving everyone something to think about while they proceed to watch five doomed college students pile into an RV. The scene also brought a smile to my face for the simple fact that every time I watch a great performance from a so-called “TV” or “bit” actor and wonder “Why aren’t these guys in more movies?”, I know Joss Whedon is somewhere going “Yeah, why aren’t they?”. I sometimes feel like the collective call-list of every casting director in Hollywood might just about fill an index card if you wrote big enough, and in an era where the high end of television programming is quickly outpacing film in both production quality and acting, those people would do well to watch this movie and take note.
After this unexplained opening scene, the narrative adopts the expected pace of classic pre-torture porn horror. Five college students-the established couple, the sexual tension couple, and the funny guy. There’s your standard RV, road trip, cabin on-loan from extended family, Texas Chainsaw Gas Station, and acres upon acres of pot. In this department, the main thing separating The Cabin in the Woods from Friday the 13th Part Whatever, or even from more modern genre attempts such as Cabin Fever (also about cabins), is that the actors here aregood. The characters are likable, the performances are solid, and there’s not a single one of them that the audience is excited to see come to a gruesome end. Everyone is well-cast, but the standout in the group is easily Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) as the obligatory comic-relief stoner Marty. That’s an easy trope to dismiss as played-out, and it usually is. Kranz hits it out of the park though, and Marty is basically the Charles Foster Kane of pothead characters. Hopefully between this and Joss Whedon’s upcoming (he never stops!) Much Ado About Nothing, this guy will get the attention he deserves and start showing up in things that everyone will see. Hollywood would be much better for it.
Eventually, the movie’s A and B stories begin to swap places, and the progression into well-worn horror standards is shown to be the result of outside manipulation courtesy of the characters seen in the cold opening and the mysterious, seemingly omnipotent, company that employs them. The victims are manipulated down the path of various horror movie stereotypes, and are quickly put in a situation where they will unknowingly choose the form of their destructor, Ghostbusters style. The creepiness of the associated cellar scene plays perfectly alongside a hilarious betting pool on the other end of the video monitors, complete with a huge whiteboard containing dozens of possible outcomes including “zombie hillbilly torture family,” “reptilicus”, “clowns”, and “unicorn”. In following with American horror standards and traditions, the result is of course hillbilly torture zombies, and everyone gathers around the monitors to watch with satisfaction as the poor unwitting college students are cut down one by one. We’re also treated to glimpses of similar atrocities taking place around the globe on a bank of computer monitors, the best of which by far is Japan. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you watched much Japanese horror about ten years ago (or the parade of pointless American remakes), you’re in for a treat.
Here, I believe about halfway through the film’s run time, is where I’m going to draw my review to a close. It only gets better, and the last half contains a parade of monster effects and character design that looks like every single issue of Fangoria made real, as well as a surprise cameo that absolutely made my day and gave me a solid reason to stay off IMDB untilafter I’ve seen a film. I’m so glad the last bits weren’t spoiled for me, and I wouldn’t do that to you, even in an already spoiler-laden review. The Cabin in the Woods is a great directorial debut for Drew Goddard, and yet another notch in Joss Whedon’s Awesome Writer Belt, which I assume is a thing that he has. The casting couldn’t have been better, and the plot is a work of mad crossover genius, like if HP Lovecraft had written Monsters, Inc. I will leave you with my highest recommendation to go see this film if you haven’t already, see it again with a friend if you already have, and buy the DVD or Blu Ray when they hit stores, because this is the type of thing that deserves our money as customers of the film industry. Oh, and I will also leave you with this congratulatory Wheaties box that I made to honor Joss Whedon’s many accomplishments and contributions to my quality of life. He is a true champion. Feel free to spread it generously around the Internet, he deserves it.