The Cabin in the Woods
For a while there, it looked like this movie would never come out. It was originally meant to be released in 2010, then delayed because some genius thought of converting it to 3D (which thankfully never happened), then further delayed when its studio MGM filed for bankruptcy. Which I'm sure was really painful for fans of Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay along with director Drew Goddard and was the creative force behind the much-loved TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. I am none too familiar with the first two, but I loved Firefly and its follow-up movie Serenity; I can understand why he has such an extremely loyal fanbase. (Who tend to be pretty belligerent in defending him, as I have discovered when I criticised the dodgy Mandarin in Firefly.) So when the hype began to build among Whedonites for The Cabin in the Woods, which has finally gotten its theatrical release, I figured it would be worth a watch.
Five college students - Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchinson), Holden (Jesse Williams) and Marty (Fran Kranz) - go up to the mountains to spend the weekend at a deserted cabin by a lake. There, they encounter horrors that kill them off one by one - but little do they know that their every move is being observed and controlled by Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), two dull-looking bureaucrats who are plotting their gruesome murders. And who are part of what looks like an entire secret facility dedicated to killing them according to a plan, right down to the creepy redneck (Tim de Zarn) they encounter on their way to the cabin. And all to what purpose... remains to be seen.
Whoa - this is one devilishly clever movie. It goes places I've never seen a movie go before, except for what I've read in horror novels and short stories. In fact, there's a specific subgenre of horror it delves into whose name I can't even reveal for fear of spoiling the effect. There's a lot I can't reveal about the storyline, because half the pleasure is the delicious realisation that there is much, much more going on under the surface - literally, as it so happens. Which makes this a hard review to write.
So let's talk about that surface. As you might have guessed from the synopsis, it starts off as the most clichéd kind of horror movie ever, in which a bunch of attractive, dumb and horny kids go to a secluded spot only to get themselves bloodily murdered. But right from the beginning, there is also a mysterious corporation not only watching their every move, but also unleashing murderous horrors on them, and even influencing their behaviour in insidious ways. Clearly there's more to this than your typical slasher flick, but before we find that out, we're treated to plenty of Whedon's trademark snarky humour from Sitterson and Hadley - as well as the vicious irony of a banal office environment juxtaposed with the pain and death being dealt to a group of innocent young people.
Because what we have here is a clever and devastating critique on the horror genre, in particular the ones in which the torture and mutilation of nubile young morons is the whole selling point. It wouldn't surprise me if that's exactly what Whedon is intending: a subtle judgment of the kind of horror fan who loves watching attractive people suffer, and for whom the gorier the mutilation, the better. But it's subtle, and not at all off-putting; in fact, horror fans are more likely to be delighted at a late-stage sequence that appears to pay homage to a dozen different horror subgenres and franchises. That part had me grinning like a 12-year-old, and is indicative of the movie as a whole; it is equal parts smart, scathing and fun, and juggles all three remarkably well.
What it isn't, however, is emotionally engaging. If it were, it would've earned 4-½ stars easily, but the principal five college kids in the cabin never become compelling characters, despite Whedon's valiant attempts to humanise them. It doesn't help that they're all played by unfamiliar faces whose credits are probably largely in TV, and whose bland good looks don't make up for the dullness of their performances. (On the other hand, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are terrific, likely because their characters are much more fun to watch.) Oh yeah, Chris Hemsworth is in this; yes, Thor himself, in a movie he clearly made before his star-making turn as Marvel's Norse god superhero. But here, all his considerable charm is absent. As clever as Whedon's simultaneous subversion and aversion of horror clichés are, he hasn't quite succeeded at creating protagonists actually worth caring about.
But the brilliantly twisty storyline makes this more than worth a watch - heck, it makes it required viewing for any horror fan, or even anyone with a vague interest in horror movies. It's criminal that this film sat gathering dust in MGM's vaults for so long; guess we have the combination of Hemsworth's newly-minted star status and Whedon's being tapped for the directorial gig on The Avengers to thank for finally getting to watch it. I totally get why Whedon has such a rabid fanbase - he's a really, really good storyteller, whether as director or screenwriter. (And even if he didn't pull it off here, he's long since proven his mettle at creating great characters in his other works.) If he keeps making more great movies - or if I ever get around to catching Buffy, Angel or Dollhouse on DVD - I might just join the ranks of the Whedonites myself.
NEXT REVIEW: Lockout
Expectations: Escape from New York in space! Woohoo!