Cabin in the Woods
Every so often, a movie comes along that is so self-consciously fanboy-oriented, so relentlessly meta, that if you have an ounce of geekiness in your bones you're going to seriously dig it. In this case, it's A Cabin in the Woods, a sarcastic nerdy spectacle from Drew Goddard (Cloverfield's writer) and Joss Whedon (Serenity, The Avengers).
With a parallel set of narratives to chart its course, this horror movie send-up takes clichéd archetypes and storytelling, then works overtime to subvert, twist and befuddle expectations. It doesn't always work and it's rarely scary, but damn if it isn't entertaining as hell.
On the main story path, we have five college pals who pile into an RV and head for a party-filled weekend at an isolated cabin by a lake. There's the brainy and somewhat virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly), her bottle-blond BFF Jules (Anna Hutchison), Jules' alpha-male boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth before he became Thor), a nerdy-hunk named Holden (Jesse William), and stoner-philosophy major Marty (Fran Kranz). So far so good. The dialogue is fleet and witty, and the plotting is by-the-book horror-movie familiar — down to the creepy, backwoods gas station attendant that all but warns the gang of their impending doom.
But what about Steve (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Bradley Whitford), the military-style researchers we're introduced to at the very beginning of the movie? Between the banal but clever banter about spousal issues and workplace pressures, there's clearly something more insidious going on. I won't spoil the film's surprises, but suffice it to say they find common ground with both The Truman Show and H.P. Lovecraft.
A Cabin in the Woods gleefully and precociously reconfigures horror audience expectations in a way that's less wink-wink than the Scream series but no less self-aware. The movie has the kind of snarky self-confidence that plays to its fans even as it toys with them. There are enough zippy one-liners, inventive visual jokes and uproarious moments of gore — the "System Purge" scene delivers the film's finest batshit moment, to satisfy even the most casual viewer. And anyone who followed Whedon's TV series Angel will recognize more than a few of the film's themes and narrative ideas.
But Goddard and Whedon are striving for something more than just spectacle for spectacle's sake, and it's here that they stumble. Not content to simply pull apart and dissect horror movie tropes before unceremoniously tossing them aside, the collaborators decide to comment on the morally suspect desires of horror movie enthusiasts. You see, Steve and Richard are really stand-ins for us, the callous audience that regards the destruction of human life as an entertaining means to an end, even an excuse to celebrate. This is captured in a masterfully executed scene where the duo's co-workers sip drinks, collect bets and casually talk shop as Dana is brutally assaulted on the control room screen.
The film's real joke is that its protagonists ultimately revolt and end up subverting the paradigm, pulling down the whole sordid house of cards with them, consequences be damned. It's a great idea poorly executed. The characters in A Cabin in the Woods are barely human, behaving mostly as conceptual props for the filmmaker's stunt-clever storytelling. This is surprising, given that Whedon is known for injecting unexpected humanity and empathy into such genre exercises as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
Much like Oliver Stone's ambitious but misguided Natural Born Killers, A Cabin in the Woods' commentary on horror, the film industry and audience manipulation is undermined by the fact that it indulges in the same shallow and nasty sense of thrills it critiques. Without a real sense of human emotion or motivation, there's little reason for an audience to care, and less reason to reflect on the true cost of violence. The gimmick works, but the message, unfortunately, will be lost. —Jeff Meyers