A couple of years ago I heard third-hand about a closed screening at MGM of a new horror film from the makers of Cloverfield and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The post-screening buzz was that Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods was a gem, an intelligent, superior horror item with a creative new twist or two to enliven a genre burdened with cookie cutter zombie pictures and (in 2010) Twilight knockoffs. MGM could truly have used a big hit, but the studio's response to the positive news was to hold Cabin back indefinitely, and to investigate converting it to 3D against producer Whedon's wishes. Then the studio changed leadership. The new regime dumped the old regime's projects, which included this film and the remake of Red Dawn. What should have been THE breakout horror item of 2011 languished for a year or more before being handed off to Lionsgate for distribution. Why do the works of one of our most talented fantasy filmmakers (Joss Whedon) get treated this way?
The Cabin in the Woods is still the smart horror film of 2012 despite being cheated out of its shot in the box office derby. The picture is a commercially savvy winner all the way despite having no big star names -- which is of course not a requirement in this genre. Compared to other Goddard/Whedon efforts it seems to be trying too hard to be coldly nihilistic, but that's also par for the genre these days. What counts is that our interest grows as the film proceeds. By the time that Goddard and Whedon's concept turns itself inside out, we've been given a real run for our money.
The setup for Cabin couldn't be more generic. Five typed college kids jump into a motor home and head to the woods for some recreation: the sensitive Dana (Kristin Connolly), her randy girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchinson), Jules' athletic boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the handsome but bookish Holden (Jesse Williams) and a fifth wheel, the amiable stoner Marty Mikalski (Fran Kranz), who brings an enormous bong with him. The kids investigate the cabin, which has some unusual details, such as strange paintings on the walls and a hidden one-way mirror between two of the bedrooms. After a swim they play a sexy 'dare' game that sends Dana into the basement, which proves to be packed with strange items. She starts to read from a diary belonging to the cabin's first resident Patience Buckner, whose entire pioneer family was murdered by their deranged father. As if in response to the opening of the book, the ground around the cabin disgorges moldy walking corpses. We're barely 1/3 of the way into the movie, and a protracted battle for survival has already begun.
At this point The Cabin in the Woods takes a hard left turn away from what seems to be a brightly scripted and filmed remake of horror efforts going back to the early 1970s. The group has already tangled with the hostile, angry owner of a run-down gas stop, a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and the rest of the setup is almost identical to the first The Evil Dead movie, right down to the little cabin nestled in the pine trees.
Note: I want to stress that The Cabin in the Woods is better seen without knowing any more about the story -- in this case ignorance is a good thing. I'm aware that the film's own trailer gives away more secrets, and so does a blurb on the back of the box. For those who want to hearl a little bit more, I've provided suchsame in this slight spoiler footnote.
Co-writers Whedon and Godard have locked on to an excellent idea in Cabin and give it all they've got, especially in the humor department. We eventually find out why the assortment of prospective victims corresponds to genre clichés. Thanks to the good writing, the young actors win our approval despite behaving oddly for 'victims' born into a post- Scream world -- the closest one of them gets to an awareness that they're reliving a bad horror film is when Marty exclaims, "We're in a reality show!" The script should receive top marks just for making the Marty Mikalski character work so well. At first a broad Cheech 'n' Chong cipher, making dope jokes inside dope jokes, Marty's zonked-out receptors read the situation with remarkable accuracy. He and Dana are the ones to unlock the riddle of the cabin in the woods.
Of the young actors, Fran Kranz was a regular on Whedon's Dollhouse show. Amy Acker, who plays one of the women in the lab, was on Angel (the Buffy spinoff series) and Dollhouse. Whedon discovered Chris Hemsworth, and recommended him to Marvel for the title role in Thor --a role he reprised for Whedon in The Avengers.
I won't go into the ramifications of the last half of the film except to say that some other characters with rather curious jobs seem awfully cavalier about a problem that could spell the end of mankind, a problem that defeats other research teams around the world. With its dose of Lovecraftian horror-doom The Cabin in the Woods also gives us a terrific kids-vs.-ferocious monsters survival story. The monsters are truly horrible. For once, when a picture promises that All Hell Will Break Loose, we see it happen. In what looks like an American version of a Japanese Yokai spook warfare tale, 101 of the nastiest Things You Ever Saw are let loose, all at once, all In Your Face.
All this, and yet a consistent undertone of comedy is maintained throughout. The filmmakers frequently come up with perversely hilarious moments, as when a character (that I will not name) finally gets to see the 'mer-man' monster that he's so proud of, one that 'never seems to get chosen.'
Does The Cabin in the Woods carry through on its premise/promise, as so few horror films do? Well, the strict answer is yes. But the final blow struck for individual freedom isn't very reassuring. The ending layers its nihilism pretty thick: not only will mankind probably not survive, the movie suggests that we don't deserve to survive. After our ordeal that's a pretty nasty verdict. I'm glad that Whedon and Godard don't go for a sweetness and light ending, but just the same...
The direction has the first-class polish expected from Goddard and Whedon, with good performances pitched with just enough intensity to balance the horror against the comedy. Each 1.5-dimensional character is given at least one compelling (and usually violent) revelation. The movie at first makes us work to decipher its twisted premise, and rewards us with other details (that also conceal 1,000 other questions we might have about the concept). I wish that The Cabin in the Woods had been given a proper prepared marketing launch, like Paranormal Activity of a couple of years ago. By the time that miserable nothing of a movie arrived, everybody wanted to see it. The Cabin in the Woods is a far superior all-out horror entertainment.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray of The Cabin in the Woods comes in a lenticular sleeve with the 'Rubik's Cube' key artwork that reveals 'monster compartments' when the box is tilted one way or another, a choice that made me decide that revealing the horde of monsters in the movie wasn't too terrible of a spoiler. The disc comes with instructions on downloading a digital copy and/or up-linking a 'cloud' Ultraviolet copy.
As can be expected, the widescreen transfer is immaculate and the Master Audio Track very dynamic, lifting us out of our seats at several points: this must have been an all-enveloping experience on a big screen. Writer-director Goddard and writer-producer Whedon provide a full commentary, convincing us that they are the happiest filmmakers in Hollywood - and one should be, with a blockbuster like The Avengers on one's resume. Whedon and Goddard are even willing to discuss, to some extent, "what the movie is about." Three entertaining featurettes document the making of the picture (the location set was duplicated in the studio), the CGI effects and the film's extensive special makeup & animatronic work.
"The secret secret stash" extra consists of two cute featurette fragments: Whedon giving a tour of the cabin set and actor Fran Kranz talking about his experience playing the stoner Marty. For another half-hour piece the filmmakers answer questions at a WonderCon Q&A session. A 'bonus view' extras track opens an image box in the corner for talking heads and BTS footage. These augmented trivia tracks don't seem as smooth an experience as just listening to the normal commentary track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cabin in the Woods Blu-ray rates:
1. By the time the violent attacks begin, we've already been given glimpses of another level to the story. When the kids' motor home passes through a tunnel on the lonely road to the cabin, a bird smashes into an invisible wall in the air, an electronic force field. Bored engineers in an enormous technological plant exchange small talk and facetious remarks as they remotely monitor and direct events in the cabin. For instance, when Curt recommends that everyone stay together to search the house, the scientists do 'something' that makes Curt change his mind, and tell everyone to split up to search individually. Something much bigger is going on, a little like the concept of Nigel Kneale's classic Brit TV show The Stone Tape, where researchers try to scientifically measure and observe 'supernatural' phenomena in a haunted house. But this is different -- the kids in the cabin are experiencing a manipulated scenario partly controlled by the cynical engineers back at the plant. The process isn't an experiment, but a ritual to maintain order over a Lovecraftian 'gate of Hell' situation.
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T'was Ever Thus.