Reviewing The Cabin in the Woods is a tricky proposition. People who saw the film at early screenings returned with a clear message: find out as little as possible. The title of the film hints at a pretty standard genre setup: five college kids -- Dana (Kristen Connolly), the nice girl; her friend Jules (Anna Hutchison); her athletic boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth); their smart friend Holden (Jesse Williams); and stoner/philosopher Marty (Fran Kranz) -- drive out to the middle of the nowhere to shack up for the weekend. And then...
Horror is a tired genre. It looks easy, but it isn't: every first-time director with a bucket of fake blood and maybe an actor or two willing to take their tops off is looking to make a splash. Horror also finds trends like no other genre, latching onto what's successful, draining it dry, and throwing it on the pile -- the most recent fad is found-footage, but good old fashion monster movies are still being churned out too, with each one of these tropes devolving into "fill-in-the-blanks" level originality. The genius of Cabin is the way director/co-writer Drew Goddard and producer/co-writer Joss Whedon have taken this mindset and embraced it. The film sat on the shelf for years when MGM suffered too many financial woes to afford a release, and yet its wit and invention remain as sharp as ever (a pitch-perfect reference to foreign colleagues might've seemed timelier in 2009, but is no less effective in 2012).
In the interest of keeping expectations managed, Cabin doesn't reinvent the wheel. Its approach to horror is not so original it's never been done before, but the charm is as much in the originality of the ideas as it is in the gleeful execution. I thought of the Saw series as fun (not because it's fun to watch people being tortured, as some would have you think, but because they're just movies, and I liked the way they goosed their audience), but the increasingly realistic and excessively gruesome style that they rode in on is far from universally loved. Cabin spills its fair share of guts, but it's a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser. Actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford turn in top-notch performances that will repeatedly bring the house down, and few characters in 2012 will be as loved as Marty.
The downside to all the secrecy is that Cabin is a hard movie to sell. This is a film that benefits from the enthusiasm of its viewers, but when you're trying to protect the surprises, the result is a remarkably generic-sounding film. Out of what seems like sheer desperation, the film's trailer can't even resist pulling back the curtain a little (much farther than I have -- if you haven't watched it already, I do recommend avoiding it), but even that gambit doesn't really capture the imagination the way the film does in execution. Despite an abrupt opening, part of the brilliance is in how the film eases the viewer into its world bit by bit, yet avoids holding the viewer's hand or spelling anything out.
I also wonder if viewers -- especially those who aren't fans of horror or are casual moviegoers -- might not even understand how unconventional Cabin is. Maybe I've been reading too many Tweets from kids unaware the Titanic actually existed, but Cabin is a film borne out of disappointment, and unless the viewer knows (and knows well) that disappointment, they won't truly understand how deftly Cabin bends the rules. Two of my favorite moments hardly got a reaction, even in "primed" audiences. At the same time, that's precisely what makes Cabin special. In a fan culture, where properties from 20 years ago are routinely dusted off and repurposed for modern audiences, Cabin finds a way to access that reservoir of geekiness by engaging it rather than pandering to it. See it, share it...and keep its secrets to yourself.
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