Where does one begin to write a spoiler-free review of The Cabin in the Woods? How can I encapsulate this story – frankly, the most original, funny, and entertaining horror movie I have seen in years – when half of its charm is in the discovery itself. I don’t know, but here I go.
The Cabin in the Woods starts in verrrry familiar territory, as five attractive young people pile into a camper and head into the wild to spend the weekend at the titular location. These five are archetypical: Curt the jock (Chris Hemsworth), Jules the slut (Kristen Connolly), Holden, the sensitive smart guy (Jesse Williams), Marty the stoner (Fran Kranz), and Dana the virgin (Anna Hutchinson). The disparity of these personalities is part of the joke: birds of a feather generally do flock together, unless of course a film needs a rather motley crew to bounce interestingly off one another as in The Breakfast Club.
We’ve been here many times before, especially in the 1980s – whether in the Friday the 13th films, or Sleepaway Camp, or, most notably, in Sam Raimi’s first two Evil Dead movies. TCITW pays homage to all of those, and then some, but doesn’t beat us over the head with too many obvious pop culture references. There are nods to previous horror films, to be sure, but many are so subtle and geek specific that if you DO get one of the obscure allusions, you will probably feel pretty special, or hip, or geeky … you know … like the other two people laughing in the theater because they got that joke, too. The film plays on our awareness of horror film tropes (especially what may lurk in a dark cellar), but does so with style and intelligence, without letting the joke spoil the suspense. While the Scream films of the 90s brought a hip awareness to their slasher proceedings, TCITW goes infinitely further in turning its own genre on its head. And boy is that putting it mildly.
This film goes places I not only did not see coming, but that I have never seen in a film of this type. I spent the first half trying to figure out the mystery of what was going on. Why DO we keep cutting away to those guys in ties (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who damn near steal the movie), who work at a facility that may or may not be doing some high tech surveillance work? This is not a spoiler – the movie opens with this dorky duo. In fact, for the first few minutes, I thought I had walked into the wrong theater. By the second half, I was watching in slack-jawed awe, saying to myself, Holy shit, are we really going THERE? Only to discover that not only are we going there, we are going well beyond THERE. Where is THERE, you ask? No place you don’t want to go – you just don’t know it yet. But, the less you know about that … hell, the less you know about the entire movie, the better.
Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it goes to the next logical place that you never thought of. There isn’t a Big Twist Ending pasted on at the end – no Shyamalamadingdong here. From the opening frame to the last, this film’s complex plot is well thought out and slowly revealed. And how often does THAT happen in a horror film? Or IS it a horror film? Or a deconstruction of a horror film? Or is it science fiction? Or … I’ve said too much already.
Joss Whedon (co-writer and producer) and Drew Goddard (co-writer and director) have both come a long way from their days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And with this one film, announce to the world that they are forces with which to be reckoned. To date, this is the only film Goddard has directed, and even this has sat on a shelf since 2009, after MGM filed for bankruptcy. That may have been providential as … none of the five visitors who go to TCITW was a known name in 2009. Cut to three years later and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) is on top of the world – especially with the imminent release of The Avengers. His name may draw some viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a horror film, but strong word of mouth will (hopefully) do the rest. Needless to say, 2012 is going to be a banner year for both Hemsworth and Whedon, who wrote and directed The Avengers. (Banner year for the Hulk, too, HA!)
Oddly enough, if there is a breakout performance in this film, it is not Hemsworth (though he is fine). It is Fran Kranz as Marty. Normally the “stoner” archetype in movies like this is played strictly for laughs or is portrayed as an annoying buffoon. Not so here. Marty does provide comic relief (his travel coffee mug is classic), but he may also be the wisest of all the visitors to this cabin. The Stoner Sage – haven’t had one of those on our screens since Jeff Bridges donned a robe, flip flops, and a White Russian. Also, if anyone ever decides to make a biopic of Dennis Hopper, Fran is your man. (For more on this talented newcomer, check out this Examiner profile.)
If TCITW does well at the box office, of course the producers will want a sequel. Or (shudder) a prequel. But I don’t think this is franchise material. I can’t say so without giving anything away, but I would be happy if this was simply the brilliant stand alone feature that it is, towering over its milked-to-death predecessors.
Three things regarding the trailer for TCITW: One – nothing in the trailer made me want to see this film. I went because the buzz on it has been out of the stratosphere. Two – the trailer at once tells too much, and not enough. The same damn trouble I am having trying to write an enticing, yet spoiler-free review. Three – don’t watch the trailer. I know some of you won’t be able to resist (that’s why I am not posting it here), but trust me, if you can possibly see this movie without ANY foreknowledge save what I’ve written here, DO SO.
Yes, it is only April, but The Cabin in the Woods is fresh, funny, original, intelligent, and the best time I’ve had at the movies so far in 2012. For the rest of this year’s films, regardless of genre, the bar has been set high.
MOVIE GRADE: A-