PREFACE: ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is a magical horror film. It is not in its twists that it impresses, but in its concept and execution. That said, I recommend you go see the film without knowing any more than you might already know. That means you probably shouldn’t read this review. Not much is spoiled in this review, but anything considered even a slight spoiler within this review will be marked as such. You’ve been warned.
THE STATE OF HORROR
Horror films have forever been an integral part of our film lexicon. From the early scares of the silent screen to the incarnation of classic movie monsters to decades worth of money-grabbing sequels and remakes, the horror genre has proven to impress, disappoint and sometimes scare us like nothing else.
Lately, the genre has become overly dry of life and repetitious in its idea. Studios often see it as a quick way to make a few bucks. Execution isn’t complicated, the films are easy to sell to an audience and you hadn’t need to hire cinema’s greatest talents to get it all done – just look at the way remakes to Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and others were sold to us. It wasn’t a filmmaker or movie star we were going to see when film studios decided they needed to bring those franchises back. It was the lore and legend of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees that made it easy enough to sell to a mass audience.
But there’s a key group of horror-loving fiends that would disagree with that approach. I am one of them. Rather than be intrigued by the sudden fact that these films are existing, I’m much more interested in the key players behind the scene. Case in point, the upcoming Evil Dead sequel/remake/reboot/whatever. Sam Raimi, the original trilogy’s creator, seemingly has a distanced position on the project. Bruce Campbell, the big-chinned stud that became a cult B-movie icon after Evil Dead and other works, isn’t reprising his role. So what gives? What about Diablo Cody having her filthy hands on the screenplay should sell the film to me? It won’t work. But it will be sold to the masses and that’s enough for some producers.
On the other hand, there’s still a small part of the working horror film community that is doing amazing things. Ti West has created two exceptional slow burning and vintage horror titles over the last few years (The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) because he was given complete creative control over his projects. The lack of control drove him away from having his name attached to a Cabin Fever sequel he had been working on. Adam Green has done an incredible job keeping the slasher genre fresh in his two Hatchet films, which is no easy task considering the history of the genre. The level of commitment to the project seen from West and Green is what we need more of.
Each and every time there’s a fresh breath of air blasted into the horror genre I get excited. It’s the genre that single-handedly sparked by deep-rooted interest in film back in high school. But I was sucked in by the geniuses other the genre, not the modern cheap schlock of it. George A. Romero, Dario Argento and Mario Bava were the purveyors of my interest in not only horror film, but film in general. It is to them I look when I want a sure thing full of creativity and risk. Sadly, these types of filmmakers aren’t found as often today. And if they are found, they don’t often make the horror genre their number one priority like others have in the past. But at least there is some potential floating around.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
If I’ve kept you reading 500 words about my opinion on the state of the horror film, I’m sure you actually want to know what I thought about the latest injection of inspiration into the horror scene: The Cabin in the Woods. This, for all it’s worth, is a horror fans’ horror film. I don’t doubt that it can impress outside the circle, but I do doubt that it would have the same meaning and impact as it would on the mind of a horror-obsessed cinephile as it did for me.
A simple set up: A group of college students, familiar to other horror films, head to a cabin in the woods for a long weekend away from society. This is the best ever sequel to Evil Dead (that’s a joke, you’re supposed to laugh). The film takes a life of its own when it introduces the true purpose of Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), two ordinary employees working inside a dull yet unexpectedly ominous lab, who are oddly introduced early in the film and are part of one of the film’s best gags as a blood red and evil title card roars onto the screen as the two talk about having a beer and fixing cabinets.
*Concept Spoilers* Sitterson and Hadley have complete surveillance and limited control over the five kids and the cabin they are visiting. The students are bait for some sort of violent ritual of monsters and death that is unknown to viewers early in the movie. The film is self aware to the point that Sitterson and Hadley act like the directors of a horror film. They place their harbinger – an older, crazy ‘gentleman’ at a creepy gas station – to warn the group of curious victims about the mysteries surrounding the cabin. They manipulate the action and the people in a way a horror director might do to his or her film. *End Spoilers* These are the known and understood cliches of horror film at work, but the placement, execution and use of them all is in a creative, fresh and obvious way that somehow breathes originality.
By transmitting control of everything in The Cabin in the Woods that is typical within a horror film, including the location, the evil that exists and the existence of average characters to the two on screen characters of Sitterson and Hadley, writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard are free of being held to the same standards of rehash and reuse a creator of a more straightforward and less creative horror film would be. These two obviously share a love for the genre (Whedon is the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Goddard, who also directed the film, wrote Cloverfield) and know exactly what they’re doing and have fun while doing it.
What transpires throughout the rest of the film after the initial setup is an engaging variation on the slasher genre and extended chaos that makes horror fans geek out and race through their mind trying to pick up references, homage and tribute through a number of moments, situations, twists and turns. This is one of the most innovative and creative horror films of the last many years. One of the best too. It might be true that the film’s conclusion throws a lot at its viewer, but it’s all bloody fun that a horror fan should want to eat up with a gold-plated spoon. You wouldn’t need to force feed me schlock and awe this good.
The question that remains is whether or not Whedon and Goddard have done enough to turn the horror genre on its head. This film certainly caught the eye of the professional film critics and resulted in overly positive reviews, a rarity for a horror film in any generation.
Whether studios latch on to more risk-taking horror projects, like they have with other genres, is going to be the big potential payoff of The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a film that inspires creation, manipulation and does so in a loving, funny and self-aware nature. A lot of people have tried to mock or riff on the genre the way Whedon and Goddard have, but until now, no one has succeeded the way these two have. This is a horror masterpiece for a new generation, using generation’s past as a springboard and launching pad for creativity. We’re lucky to witness it.