Anyone who truly knows me knows about my admiration with horror films and everything else mysterious, scary, and gruesome. Growing up, this form of entertainment was my first true love, and that love has continued as my cinematic palette has become more refined. I crave, obsess about, and watch movies that Rotten Tomatoes has deemed “Certified Fresh,” but every now and then, I need to revisit my roots, so to speak, and take up my viewing pleasures with the likes of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, no matter how campy they became in their later years of terrorizing teenagers.
Enter Drew Goddard’s (screenwriter of Cloverfield) directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods. If you had told me that a contemporary horror film had a score of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (88% among Top Critics), I probably would have laughed it off. But alas, The Cabin in the Woods does far more than prove it’s worth as a horror film. Its material demands to be taken seriously, but also demands that you have a fun time, and there is plenty of fun to be had in this picture.
Before I get into my critical views of the film, I want to touch on a couple things. First of all, I’m going to make the not-so-bold assertion that slasher films just are not cool anymore. Not like they used to be, at least. This certain subgenre got started in the 1970s, hit its peak of popularity in the early 1980s, saw a decline in the latter half of the decade, and since that time has yet to see a full recovery. In this day and age, slasher films come back into mainstream consciousness in the form of sequels and heartless remakes and it seems no one has an original thought that can sell well anymore, at least, not since the days of Wes Craven’s Scream.
Scream completely turned the slasher film on its head by embracing the basic, unspoken conventions of said films and introduced a whodunit flair that was engaging. Not only did the audiences embrace it, the critics did as well. For the first time since the late 1970s, there had been a slasher film that was popular with the public and the press. All it took was some fearless innovation. Sixteen years later, we get that same blissful feeling with The Cabin in the Woods, but I’ll get to that in just a little bit.
Now, I think it’s worth mentioning the numerous amounts of premiere date changes this film went through. Assuming you’ve seen the film and enjoyed it for all of the same reasons I did, what if I told you that the film was actually made in 2009 and primed for a theatrical release date in early 2010 by MGM? How annoyed are you right now? A little? Well, then how about if I tell you it then got pushed back a year later, and then suddenly all the way back to the middle of April 2012? How mad are you now?
Well, MGM was experiencing quite a few financial problems, so the film had a lot of trouble just getting off of the ground. But besides, now that you’ve seen the film, you should realize that it was well worth the wait. But, anyway, enough of my senseless ramblings. Let’s move on to ramblings with a purpose.
The heart and soul of The Cabin in the Woods all comes from Goddard and Joss Whedon’s script. It’s all I’m going to talk about because, trust me, I could go all day speaking about its brilliance and I have quite a few items to touch on. First of all, because this film, like Scream, means to poke fun at the conventions of horror films, one of the major components of the script is how the film chooses to embrace them. Fortunately, the film treats every convention in such a loving manner that it’s almost unfair to call the film a parody. While it is part of the film’s duty to make light of the things many viewers criticize horror movies for, it never means to proclaim the stupidity or lack of intrinsic value of those films.
It’s more than obvious that Goddard and Whedon are fans of the genre and their knowledge of it transcends those of most contemporary horror filmmakers. This shows in the amount of playful jabs it takes in the film. They start from the most basic, like the characters, the setting, and the ‘sex equals death’ rule, all the way to nitty-gritty of horror movie conventions, such as the lack of a signal at the protagonists’ desired destination, the suggestion of splitting up in a dangerous situation, and one of the characters dropping a weapon they’ve used to assail the villain. Just about every convention of a typical horror film is put on display for the audience, especially those well-versed in the language of all that is horrifying, to find enjoyment in and many of them are set up with such cleverness that make it impossible to not get a kick out of. In the end, that’s one of the film’s greatest strengths. Even though it may seem, at face value, that this film is meant for hardcore horror geeks like me, the fact is that anyone can get pleasure out of the film, no matter what their level of horror knowledge is.
Secondly, what is so impressive about this script is how the plot is arranged and the amount of withholding that comes with its structure. This script constantly works to keep certain things hidden from explicit knowledge, and when some mysteries are uncovered, others are formed. Let me just take you through the progression of the plot. The film begins unlike how many going into the film would expect. We meet two co-workers at the office, talking about their lives in the mundane fashion typical of 9 to 5 office workers. We are never given any suspicion that they are involved in what we expect to see other than the fact that they’re there. After a little more office chitchat, we’re taken to the group of characters we expected to see from the beginning. To the most educated of horror filmgoers, they are presented in a way that we can easily classify them as to what kind of horror character they are.
We have Jules (the harlot), Curt (a hotshot athlete), Holden (a polite, well-meaning scholar), Marty (a conspiracy-theory laden pothead who often serves as the film’s comedic relief and is, ironically, the voice of reason among the group), and Dana (the Final Girl – horror speak for the character, typically female, who survives the whole ordeal). In this instance, we have two completely different groups of characters introduced, but we have no way of knowing how they are connected until near the end of the first act. This is only one example of a concealing of facts that the film does on a regular basis to its benefit because it keeps the viewer engaged in the mystery of why all of this is happening. Admittedly, all of the guessing over information given and kept secret becomes overwhelming, especially in the insane third act, even for hardcore horror nuts like me. I can accept this flaw, however, because the payoff is incredible.
Third, it is wonderful just how amiable these characters are, both from ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs.’ Upstairs, with our eventual victims, it was refreshing to see how some of these characters transcend stereotypes, especially when we know that most of them are going to meet a grisly demise anyway. Holden and Dana are the only characters who don’t seem to deviate from the traditional horror model too much, but that does not mean they are uninteresting or hard to like. Holden is a mix between athlete and scholar, which is nice to see because, in the typical horror film (or any film involving teenage/college-age characters for that matter), there is a line drawn between those two identities. Additionally, Dana is advertised as the Final Girl, however, she is not a virgin, which is a typical staple of that convention.
The other three are far different from what is the norm. First of all, even though Jules is regarded as the group whore, she is far more affable than others. Typically, the female character that has sex in the film is unfriendly to everyone, except her male partner, and uses intimidation tactics to antagonize the likes of the Final Girl. In Jules’s case, however, she and Dana are the best of friends and she is well mannered to everyone. Secondly, Curt is not your typical jock. He shows that he has an intellectual side that separates him from every other macho man seen in countless horror films. Finally, Marty is not your typical burnout. Rather than being unintelligent and disconnected from reality by drugs, Marty is constantly thinking and aware of his surroundings, in fact more so than his sober fellows. So this film raises an important question: just how closely do screenwriters really need to follow the unspoken guidelines of horror filmmaking?
With regards to those on the ‘downstairs’ level, because they are the ones orchestrating the deaths of these kids, our kneejerk reaction is to classify them as the antagonists. But are they really the ones we should fear? Our protagonists in this area are Sitterson and Hadley and they are the characters we meet at the film’s very beginning. They are just like us, casually engaging in normal, mundane conversation like every other office worker. The only difference is that they are part of an underground global organization that works to provide sacrifices to appease “the ancient ones.” After mentioning that little tidbit, they must be inherently evil people, right? You would think so, wouldn’t you? But there are a few moments in the film when these characters prove to us that this job is not something they take great pleasure in. They are above all of the violent mayhem and carnage and are able to recognize and praise the spirit of someone fighting for his or her life.
Additionally, this film’s script moves adeptly between moments of humor, mystery, and sheer terror. From the start, the film applies humor (especially in the form of Marty) to lead us off guard, unable to detect the fishiness lurking in the air. Periodically, the film gives us little hints and clues as to what is wrong, but never exactly what (there’s that withholding), and then the amusing dialogue returns and then we suddenly feel safer. Not safe, just safer. The plot builds to a point, however, when suddenly comedy can no longer disguise the true nature of this film, but it often still works and is able to reside peacefully with the manic terror that comes about.
Furthermore, you would believe that a film that finds delight in deconstructing an entire genre would be devoid of scares. Instead, the film has its moments where it is quite suspenseful and terrifying. The tone of Jules’s death scene is unmistakably that of a serious horror film and the extreme close-up of her face while the saw moves to the left is downright horrifying. In addition, the scene when Curt, Holden, and Dana try to escape is marked by a high amount of suspense as they race for the tunnel, while Sitterson races down halls to make sure the tunnel blows. It’s competing objectives such as this that, in part, make this film just as entertaining as any other horror flick.
Ultimately, the film raises one big question that proves why the material ought to be taken seriously and not as a parody. As a public, do we really enjoy watching characters die in these films, and if so, why? Have we been so desensitized by the realities of war, famine, death, and disease (thanks American media) and by horror films that are completely by the numbers that we are numb to the deaths presented on the screen? There is one scene in the film that illustrates this thought. It is believed that Dana is the only one left alive, so everyone at the organization parties in the control room, because her death is optional to appease the gods below. While the workers celebrate, Dana is being attacked by one of the killers in the film, which can be seen on screens throughout the control room.
This sequence continues to go completely unnoticed by everyone reveling, as they are incredibly happy to have avoided a complete catastrophe. Has content like this (both in fiction and reality) saturated the media so much that we are indifferent to characters dying? We could enjoy it for a number of reasons. First of all, we could enjoy it because we’re used to it. We’ve become familiar with the trappings of horror films, so we expect people to die gruesomely and our film-going pleasure is derived from that. Secondly, if a certain character is distasteful and hostile to others, of course we enjoy watching them die. It’s all a means of catharsis. It is perfectly normal to enjoy watching characters die in horror films so long as that enjoyment does not extend to real life.
The bottom line is that The Cabin in the Woods is a funny, scary, intelligent, and surprisingly accessible film that Whedonites and horror nerds everywhere should welcome with open arms. Looking back at its box office performance, it is highly likely (and rather saddening) that when most people look back at the career of Joss Whedon, the first things that will come to their minds will be the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and Marvel’s The Avengers. They should remember The Cabin in the Woods, though.
Most mainstream horror films come and go from the public’s memory, and most of those films deserve such a fate (hey, anyone remember Van Helsing?). The Cabin in the Woods is not like other horror films. It works too hard to be entertaining to deserve being forgotten in the next five years. This is a film worthy of a plethora of repeat viewings and I will cherish it for a long time, because who knows how long it will be before we have another horror film like this. I am damn proud to give The Cabin in the Woods a score of 3.5 out of 4. Let’s get this party started.