Joss Whedon is well known for his subversions of genre – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, built on the flipped premise of the slasher movie’s dumb blonde, Firefly‘s Western in space – Whedon is a man who manages to work within the foundations set by previous genre tropes whilst twisting said tropes in audience pleasing and puzzling ways. The Cabin in the Woods follows this pattern. Written as both a criticism of modern, torture porn horror and a love-letter to the classics, the film stands as the most interesting scary movie since Scream – though the term ‘scary movie’ is used lightly in this case.
The film opens with two men – Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) casually discussing their personal lives in what could be a scene from any office in the country. And that’s when you know Cabin is going to be a bit different – it opens not as a slasher movie but as something else entirely. Right away there’s the dependency between the film’s title and how it begins – expect more in a similar vein. Jenkins and Whitford make references to their mysterious line of work before a Funny Games-esq jump slams the confused audience into the titles. Most critics have mentioned that the less you know about Cabin the better it is, but saying that suggests that this is a ‘twist’ movie – it’s not. The audience is told from the opening scene what’s going down – something about a sacrifice, a mysterious underground complex filled with office workers monitoring a group of teens whilst making bets on what monster will kill them. The movie is open with its intentions. We know where we stand, though it’s not quite our usual position.Then the film picks up where you’d expect – five beautiful teenagers getting ready for a trip to the middle-of-nowhere. There’s Curt (Chris Hemsworth, pre Thor) the jock, who’s cousin owns the eponymous cabin – Jules (Anna Hutchinson) the slutty blonde, the stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), the bookish Holden (Jesse Williams) and the virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly). Of course, the first thing audience’s will notice is how these characters both fit and subvert their respective archetypes – the foundations are all there for your standard horror movie, yet we’re told right away that Dana isn’t a virgin, and that Curt is actually pretty intelligent. Already the movie twists the genre. The film is self-aware, and it’s characters are supposed to fill the roles the audience is used to. But ignoring the strange, monitoring agents and a bird-destroying roadside forcefield, the opening of Cabin goes through the familiar motions – hormonal tension between teens, the creepy (and crucially ignored) harbinger of doom, the creaky, leaf-strew abandoned cabin in the woods. It feels like it’s supposed to – like the opening toThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Evil Dead. The audience is meant to feel that they’ve seen this before. It’s meant to be standard.And that’s because Cabin is a standard horror movie without being one. Whedon and Drew Goddard (who co-wrote and directed) have crafted a love-letter not just to slasher movies but the entire horror genre. It’s a film for fans primarily, relying on audiences knowing the rules and knowing when they’re being broken. Whedon and Goddard know that the first rule of parody is to love what you mock, and clearly, this is a film made with a lot of love – it looks the part, with its dark autumnal woods, and it feels the part too, with all the standard music spikes and scary moments. And there are some great moments – a backwards walk jump scare which doesn’t happen and then does – similar to the fake cupboard opening scare in Scream – the audience is used to a character backing up into someone else and jumping, or the killer leaping out of the closet when the music swells – when neither happens, it’s a great twist on expectations, which then allows the audience to get hit by the actual scare.Cabin is full of clever moments like this. The characters are designed to both fit the mould and go against it, strengthening the idea of their expected roles – and certain scenes, such as the obligatory boob shot, entirely self-aware, say a lot about the voyeuristic nature of cinema goers. The movie has two levels – the office setting of Jenkins and Whitfield, and the cabin horror movie place. By aligning the audience with the office – the architects, watchers and consumers of the horror, Whedon manages to pry into what we want from the genre and why we need it.
‘They have to make the choice of their own free will. Otherwise, system doesn’t work. Like the harbinger: creepy old fuck practically wears a sign saying “YOU WILL DIE”. Why would we put him there? The system. They have to choose to ignore him. They have to choose what happens in the cellar. yeah, we write the game as much as we have to but in the end, if they don’t transgress they can’t be punished.’ – Sitterson
And though the film goes through the motions deliberately, what’s surprising is that it actually manages to surprise, kicking up a fantastic, crazy third act that leave audience’s wondering what the hell they just saw. The film is a commentary on the horror genre and what we expect from it, and it’s written and directed with such passion and energy that it remains utterly engrossing.
Though the film works within the rules of a horror movie and contains so many references to the genre – from zombie movies, to killer trees, Japanese ghost flicks with long-haired dead girls and even Hellraiser‘s cenobite’s, but it can’t really be called a horror movie. It isn’t scary. This is primarily where it differs from Scream, the King of Metathreatrical Scary Movies, as Scream managed to parody itself whilst retaining its suspense and scares. It is fun though, and very funny, with a standard, Buffy-esq Joss Whedon humour of undercutting serious moments with silly comedy – a great scene over a speaker-phone springs to mind – Cabin is so playful and comedic it’s impossible not to have a laugh watching it, and not just in a knowing, oh-that’s-clever fashion, it’s genuinely a funny movie.As well as the clever, funny writing, Cabin benefits from it’s amazing cast. Everyone is on top form here, from sardonic and weary Whitford and Jenkins – who have great chemistry and really sell their roles, with deadpan, gallows humour and wit – to the teens themselves, who really shine by each playing two different parts – their characters, and their archetypes. Hemsworth does a great smart jock and Hutchinson does a wonderful duel role of slasher movie slut and genuine nice girl. Kranz is hilarious as the stoner, loveable and wise, and the most self-aware of the characters, acting as the wall breaker between both the movie’s two worlds and our world and the movie. Connolly is great too – very likeable, and she plays horror movie motions – fear, terror, anguish – brilliantly. It’s towards the end when she’s allowed to be in on the joke that she really shines though, and the actress generates a lot of humour with her not-quite virginal heroine. It’s also lovely to see the adorable Amy Acker agian and there’s a fantastic cameo at the end of the flick.
The Cabin in the Woods is a smart movie – a love-letter to the horror genre which manages to twist audience expectations and comment on the nature of horror itself, all whilst being very, very funny. It’s a wonderfully playful film which fans will love, and proof that there’s nothing more constructive than deconstruction.
All images owned by Mutant Enemy Productions and Lionsgate.