Saying this upfront: NO SPOILERS. Paul and I have also discussed the film on the show.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A bunch of kids pack into an RV for a weekend of fun, sex, and sexy fun. That they encounter the extremely creepy owner of an ancient gas station on the way does nothing to deter them from their destination: a remote cabin in the woods, owned by one of the kids’ cousins. The place immediately seems a little off, there’s some disturbing stuff in the cellar, someone maybe reads Latin, and eventually bloody mayhem ensues. Though they should know better, each one succumbs to some very stupid behavior for which they will be punished.
This is the set-up for dozens, maybe hundreds, of horror movies. The Cabin in the Woods is something different. When we first meet these kids, they seem like lively, intelligent college students. They don’t seem like they would do some of the dumb things they end up doing. Which seems par for the course for this kind of movie, except The Cabin in the Woods dares to offer a justification as to why the victims would seemingly offer themselves up as fodder. There’s more here than meets the eye. Characters played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are part of a shadowy organization which makes everything much more complicated. This I guarantee: If you’ve only seen the ads, which paint the movie as your generic Halloween Saw Massacre deal, it is not that. At all.
If you’re the kind of person who, after years of terrific genre TV, has been conditioned to squeal with glee when the words “Mutant Enemy Productions” or Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s names pop up on the screen, you’ll understand what you’re in for. If not, what you’re in for is a treat. Whedon, who produces and co-writes here, has created bold, witty staples of modern geek culture such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Co-writer/director Goddard wrote for Buffy and Angel, as well as Lost; he also penned 2008’s found footage monster mash Cloverfield. Both of them have made careers out of subverting audience expectations, and with The Cabin in the Woods, they’ve nearly outdone themselves in that regard. So many horror tropes are dissected and upended that the movie comes across as a loving, but kinda pissed, piece of film criticism.
I apologize if I’m making the movie sound in any way academic, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, you’ll get a bonus kick out of the movie as a horror fan, but even if you’ve never seen The Evil Dead or if, like my mother, you haven’t seen a single horror movie in close to 30 years, you’ll still be entertained from start to finish. Whedon and Goddard’s wit is in fine form, with a bevy of quotable lines and laugh-out-loud moments. Oh, that’s right: this movie is funny. Really funny. If the kids feel like chess pieces in the grand scheme of things, that’s by design, and more than a little of Whedon’s trademark character work is evident here. Cabin is a great start to Goddard’s career as director; it’s clear he’s learned something from all those years working behind the scenes.
It’s fun seeing a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth (the movie was filmed in 2009, but shelved for three years following MGM’s financial woes) as the dumb jock; and I enjoyed the performances of Anna Hutchison, Kristen Connolly, and Jesse Williams as the slutty blonde, the virginal innocent, and the bookworm, respectively. But it’s a real pleasure to see familiar faces from the Whedon stable. Fran Kranz gives a star-making turn as the perpetual stoner of the group, sort of like if his Topher from Dollhouse had been a total burnout. Amy Acker (Angel) and Tom Lenk (Buffy, Angel) have supporting roles for which they’re perfectly suited. Then there are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. I won’t tell you why or how, but they handily steal the show. Whitford, in particular, has some memorable moments. They’re both great actors with a knack for smart dialogue, and as such, it feels like they were born to speak the words of Whedon and Goddard.
Writing about this movie has been a bit of a challenge. People have been particularly wary of spoilers regarding the film, which is understandable; a big part of your enjoyment the first time around comes from surprise. Still, even if I had outlined the entire script for you, that wouldn’t have diminished your experience. Some of the things this movie does, and the places it goes, must be seen to be believed. It’s violent, gory, hilarious, and gifted with a truly inspired third act, all the while sharply commenting on why we consume and are obsessed with horror movies. Whedon has described it as “the horror movie to end all horror movies…literally.” By the time it’s over, you’ll know why. The Cabin in the Woods is just like every other horror movie you’ve ever seen, except it’s not.