The oft-delayed The Cabin in the Woods (it was shot in 2009) has finally made its way to theaters just in time for Friday the 13th — a release date that is, due to the film’s two-faced approach to the horror genre, both “appropriate” and “ironic.” While the film is most certainly clever and mischievously entertaining, it’s also the victim of some of producer/co-writer Joss Whedon’s familiar bad habits, such as hiding behind true emotions with sarcasm and insisting that he’s the smartest guy in the room in sometimes the smarmiest way possible.
It’s best to go into The Cabin in the Woods knowing as little as possible about it, not so much because there are so many surprises in store (there are, sure) but because that’s really all the movie is — it’s a bunch of spoilers in place of an actual plot. Whedon and Drew Goddard (the latter serves as co-writer/director) assemble a sort of Bloody Breakfast Club ensemble — including the handsome jock (Chris Hemsworth, pre-Thor), the hot blonde (Anna Hutchison), the hapless nice guy (Jesse Williams), the really annoying (even by Whedon standards) stoner (Fran Kranz) and the good-girl virgin (Kristen Connolly) — and release them unto the title location, an appropriately isolated hovel that brings to mind the doomed lodge (and situation) of The Evil Dead. It’s a quaint and humble place, but one that nonetheless somehow inspires its young tenants to be as decadent as possible. Let the sin begin!
The rampant stupidity and sexual arousal they start to exhibit isn’t really their fault, though. There’s two guys (relax, this stuff is revealed in the trailers) working in an office building (Bradley Whitford and the always-welcome Richard Jenkins — kudos if you recognize the former as Elisabeth Shue’s loser boyfriend in Adventures in Babysitting) who are watching the kids’ every move via a series of hidden cameras and manipulating their behavior via a series of horror-movie tricks (and the occasional release of behavior-altering chemicals). It’s kind of like if The Truman Show was a horror series — but to what dastardly purpose? Hey, maybe a celebrity will eventually show up for a cameo at some point and explain it all. For now, the campers have dared each other to descend into the dark, spooky basement. . . and I’ll leave it at that.
There’s some good stuff going on here. In fact, there’s a lot of it; Whedon is nothing if not a showman, and he and Goddard deliver both a decent amount of laughs and some pretty outrageous kill moments. The story is tightly constructed and, believe it or not, pretty much always credible, even (somehow) when it goes completely off the rails into la-la-land in the final act. The cast is a lot of fun (even Kranz, if only because it’s amusing to imagine smacking him), and they have a lot of fun in indulging the sometimes unexpected twists on their archetypal characters, particularly Hemsworth (who’s definitely going to be a movie star if he doesn’t qualify for one already). Goddard, who also wrote Cloverfield, knows how to work a group dynamic and maintain tension, even though you might often half-expect both him and Whedon to reveal themselves as the force behind Jenkins and Whitford’s machinations, tumbling the film completely down the meta-rabbit hole and into sweet cinematic oblivion.
And that sense of really extreme self-awareness is ultimately the main problem with The Cabin in the Woods. Whedon and Goddard have worked so hard to be so goddamn clever all the time that they’ve created a film so in tune with its own deconstruction that it might not qualify as an actual movie. This is a work to be analyzed and “appreciated,” not really experienced on an emotional or even visceral level. Wes Craven’s Scream was certainly a film that knew how to laugh at itself and call attention to its own tiresome conventions, but it was also a true horror film first and foremost (and, to be fair, one made by man with a lot of experience in the genre); on the other hand, The Cabin in the Woods is the work of two men who certainly know how to twist and turn the familiar elements of the genre, but you get a sense that they wouldn’t know what to do if they were tasked with making a “real” horror movie.
And, as is the case with a lot of Whedon’s work, Cabin wears its smarts on its sleeve. Whedon — who’s been poking at the genre since the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie 20 years ago — often comes across as the guy who was maybe too smarty-pants to be “cool” in high school; now, now that he’s one of the most respected creative forces in Hollywood, he finally gets to be that “cool” high school kid (indeed, he often surrounds himself with attractive actors who are half his age) and seems hellbent on constantly showing up the peers who wouldn’t let him be himself as a teenager (or something). He trumps emotional moments with one-liners because he always has to have the last laugh and tells certain stories to show that he “gets” them in ways we’d never be able to fully comprehend ourselves unless we heard them from him.
Still, Whedon would probably have the last laugh anyway, as we’ll probably always let him get away with all this because, well, he is pretty smart and clever and talented (how’s that for “meta?”). There’s ultimately much to be enjoyed in The Cabin in the Woods — just try to ignore its smugly grinning caretaker in the corner as he watches you “appreciating” his work.