Movie Review | The Cabin in the Woods
Everything goes bump in the night
Movie summary: Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin, where they get more than they bargained for, discovering the truth behind the cabin in the woods. (IMDb)
The Cabin in the Woods is one of those movies that seems to be generally well-regarded by most who've seen it, but absolutely loathed by those who didn't like it. I don't know whether it's something within the story of the film itself that gets them, or if it's the meta-narrative commenting on how certain people expect horror movies to be structured in a certain way and feel they are being mocked by the movie as a result.
To explain that last bit, I need to expand further on the movie's premise than the IMDb snippet above - not spoilers by the way, it's the basic set-up for the story and given away right as the film starts. To put it simply, there are two sides opposing each other, even if one doesn't know it to begin with, and each side reflects different parts of horror movie-making.
To start where The Cabin in the Woods does is to begin with 'Downstairs', who create scenarios that fulfil certain horror tropes by directing innocent victims to meet their supernatural fates for an audience of ancient beings who need to have events unfold in a particular manner to be satisfied with what they're watching.
The innocents here are a group of five college age young adults who head to the titular location for a short stay and, through the machinations of Downstairs, are directed to act and behave in a certain way - even if that means acting in a manner contrary to who they really are. Is this clear enough yet? 'Actors' being 'directed' to play roles expected by a demanding audience?
I love that aspect to The Cabin in the Woods and it really does surprise me whenever I hear that people watched the movie and never got it, because it's as clear as day to me. Perhaps those real life audience members are much like the ancient beings and simply wanted certain surface level conditions met for what they were expecting from a horror movie?
Regardless, this film is a little difference thanks to being created by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, being filled with plenty of humour and genre-defying characters who don't act like expected horror movie archetypes and frustrating Downstairs as a result, forcing Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) to frantically attempt a course correct.
The humour really helps cloud the issue of who to root for, as Downstairs are complicit in the deaths of innocent people, but are doing so in order to save everyone else on the planet. Hadley and Sitterson are so much fun to spend time with that you want to both succeed and fail at the same time.
The same is true of the five young adults, who are all pretty likable and you don't want to see anything bad happen to them, but it's the end of the world if things don't unfold as Downstairs' audience expects. Not many movies can pull off opposing sides that make me want both to fail and succeed if possible, but The Cabin in the Woods does it very well.
I don't want to go too much further into the plot because even the slightest layer of extra detail would involve some pretty explicit spoilers about how things unfold. Unfortunately, it does also mean that I can't really go into too much detail about the performances of the five staying at the cabin either without giving away what happens to them.
I will say that they all do their jobs well and they are all great fun to watch. I have to admit that I haven't seen either of the two girls in the group - Kristen Connolly as Dana and Anna Hutchison - in anything else, which is weird as they're both great at what their roles require, although the men aren't too much more recognisable either.
Well, with the obvious exception of Chris Hemsworth. This is pre-Thor Hemsworth and is only second in the credits behind Connolly even if he's the only global star of the group these days. I know Jesse Williams has been in other things I've seen, but he'll always be Marcus from Detroit: Become Human to me; and Fran Kranz I only remember as Topher from Dollhouse, another Whedon venture.
Bradley Whitford's Hadley is my favourite of the characters though, even if he's effectively taking part in mass murder through his work for Downstairs. Much like the opening of the movie suggests, he seems like a nice guy to know and would be good fun to work with, despite the nature of that work. It's like this is an alternative universe where Whitford's character from The West Wing, Josh Lyman, took a very different career path.
As for the supernatural side of things, there are plenty of monsters seen by the time the credits roll, with inspiration being clearly taken from a wide variety of sources - used for humour almost as much as for horror. It must've been interesting deciding how to depict everything they did without getting into legal issues regarding copyright.
Ultimately, the only thing that really lets The Cabin in the Woods down is the short running time. I'm aware that horror movies tend to have lower budgets than most genres, and I do wonder if the film's finale used up a little too much and meant that they couldn't film everything the wanted. Just a little bit more meat on the bones would've made this amazing.
The Cabin in the Woods is a great film that might put off some horror 'purists' thanks to the constant use of humour - even if this makes the audience like and relate to almost everyone on-screen. It does feel a little slight though, with a short running time and what feels like a rushed ending making it not quite as fantastic as it could've been.