The Last Horror Movie
In a post-screening Q&A* of his directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard explained that the film was shelved for three years not because of studio concerns over quality (as is often the case), but because MGM went bankrupt. Lionsgate eventually acquired the rights, and will release the movie nationwide on Friday, April 13th. This is an early review.
Thank God for the financial meltdown. Just as Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns would not have set the comics world on fire before 1986, The Cabin in the Woods arrives at the perfect moment in its medium's history: the point at which the genre it comments on, satirizes, and demolishes has been completely run into the ground by years of sub-par garbage.
By 2009, mainstream horror was on its last legs. Deconstructing it then in the way that Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon do here would have been like shooting a zombie in the chest instead of the head. The genre had to creak along and suffer through barrell-scraping remakes; hand-held-horror and its attendant, cheap sequels; and, finally, Wes Craven's limp-dicked stab at re-invigorating the monster he'd helped reanimate--after it had already bored legions of victims to death. If the world ends tomorrow, and The Cabin in the Woods turns out to be mankind's last horror movie, I'd say we're going out on top.
"No more preamble! Talk about the movie!"
Fair enough, Fictive Reader Voice, but I must say this really is the kind of film you'll want to experience blind. Watching the trailer or even looking at the poster gives away far too much information.
Ah, hell with it. Let's just dive in.
Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly should know right off the bat that a Goddard-and-Whedon horror movie isn't going to be like other horror movies. I'd even say it's a stretch to give The Cabin in the Woods that label; like the grand scheme of the film's sinister puppeteers, the film wears the skin of a standard stalk 'n slash, but is essentially a wry sci-fi comic yarn. Yes, five college kids head to a remote cabin for Spring Break and wind up resurrecting a family of "pain-worshipping redneck zombies", but they don't do so in a vacuum.
Beneath them is an expansive underground lab that controls the reality of the cabin and its surrounding woods (did I mention that Goddard also wrote on Lost?). Two bored bureaucrats, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, oversee a vast array of manipulative technology that leads these kids to their respective, gruesome dooms. When sociology-major-turned-jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth), orders the gang to stay together at the height of the zombie outbreak, one of the lab attendants releases a fine mist that helps him change his mind.
Early on, the group's stoner/dweeb, Marty (Fran Kranz), begins to see through the lab's ruse--though he can't be sure if he's being astute or just succumbing to the potent weed he inhales like oxygen. Soon, he and the others are running for their lives, not just from the trowel-wielding undead, but from electrified force fields and mountain-pass tunnels that mysteriously collapse on their own. When the smoke clears, there's a Survivor Girl, of course (mousy Dana, played by Kristen Connolly), and a mysterious door in the woods' floor.
Seriously, you need to turn back now if you intend on seeing this film!
The door leads to the lab, which, in form and function, is like the Umbrella Corporation's Racoon City operation from Resident Evil, crossed with Willy Wonka's factory. Dana and Marty** find themselves as sacrificial offerings in a corporate game whose purpose is to placate the ancient, pissed-off gods slumbering near the Earth's core. Stations just like this one exist around the world to create horror-movie scenarios based on indigenous pop culture tropes (the Japanese facility stages a creepy-ghost-girl setup)--each tasked with providing both bodies and sadistic entertainment for the beasts.
The tag line for The Cabin in the Woods is "You think you know the story," and I have to hand it to Goddard and Whedon: I didn't think any more could be mined from the slasher/possession/zombie premise. Their attention to detail in dredging up every stereotype and story cliche of the past thirty years and turning them on their ugly heads is breathtaking. When Dana and Marty open the floodgates on the caged monsters that the lab workers keep handy for any scenario, Cabin makes a sharp turn into gooey-bloodbath territory, offering as many chuckles as stomach-turning moments. It's like the prison-riot scene from Natural Born Killers, but with Hellraiser's Pinhead and Samara from The Ring as the inmates.
I also appreciate that the filmmakers take me seriously as an audience member. Rather than a shiny save-the-day scenario, Goddard and Whedon see their premise through to the end. Goddard, who also wrote the grim, shaky-cam phenomenon, Cloverfield, seems to take great joy in killing everyone off and then wiping out the planet. The same is true here, but it's hard to be bummed out when laughing your ass off. That was my experience, anyway.
If you've read this whole thing without having watched The Cabin in the Woods, I can only hang my head in disappointment. You should check out the movie anyway; it's fantastic, regardless of the twists and turns. But no amount of snappy dialogue, and brilliant character actors infectiously enjoying their time on-screen can make up for having robbed yourself of surprises. This is a breakup letter to horror movies as much as it is a love letter; it understands that the only place left to take the genre is so far out into left field that most fans won't recognize it as a a horror movie. In this way, The Cabin in the Woods is also a eulogy, and a spectacular one at that.
*Special thanks to Steve Prokopy of Ain't it Cool News for hosting the event, courtesy of Lionsgate.
**I told you to turn back!