Review: ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Proves Horror’s Not Dead

Posted by Brian Salisbury - April 13th 2012 @ 10:00 am

It was quite some time ago, so long I can’t even remember the exact date, that I came into possession of a mini-poster for a film I hadn’t heard of. The poster was tinted red, bearing only the image of an ominous looking cabin surrounded by a forest. The title brandished across the top was therefore far from enigmatic: The Cabin in the Woods. All I knew was that geek luminary Joss Whedon was involved in this apparent horror film and that a small, but audible buzz was building. Turns out it was co-written by Whedon and Drew Goddard (the director of Cloverfield), who would also be directing Cabin. My interest was further piqued.

Then the film slithered underground like some ancient monster, a studio fell apart, and Cabin in the Woods suffered a revolving door of release dates with no end in sight. Why is this tale of commercial woe at all relevant to this review? The longer Cabin sat unreleased, languishing in industry purgatory, the longer my expectations and desire to see the film germinated in the dank darkness of disappointment…like a mushroom? Whatever plant or fungus one may decide to adopt here, the point is that by the time I actually sat down to watch this film during SxSW, I began to fear that I had somehow built it up to much. I began to fret that my intense urge to finally bear witness to the film I had built up in my head had created an impossible expectation to which this film, by no fault of its own, would not be able to live up. Somehow, The Cabin in the Woods managed to exceed a two-year gestating hype and knock me completely on my ass.

All you need know, plot-wise, about The Cabin in the Woods going in is eloquently spelled out for you in the title. It’s apparent over-simplicity is precisely the hook…as well as the bait. It wears its Evil Dead influence on its sleeve, but more accurately, it is a callback to every archetypal scary movie predicated upon teens being sequestered from adult supervision in some remote location. Beyond that, all else is part and parcel of the film’s twisty labyrinth of devious surprises and woe (read: grim death) to those who would spoil that for you.

The Cabin in the Woods is, on its surface, a ceaseless uncorrupted thrill ride for both hardcore horror fans and casual observers alike. It invites us into the warm embrace of familiar convention and then exploits those conventions in a wholly original manner; providing for some of the most thoroughly enjoyable shrieks, slashes, and surprises in recent memory. The performances are as sharp as the teeth on a shiny new bear trap and the dialogue, true to Whedon form, flows smooth and unabated like blood from a fresh wound. It’s also gorgeously shot; boasting all the aesthetic earmarks of a considerably more expensive film. If that were the sum total of The Cabin in the Woods, it would be a success, but that is but the tip of the brilliant, blood-spattered iceberg. I assure you, I am not about to spoil any measure of the film in these next paragraphs; resigning myself to speaking in sweeping ambiguities. However, if you are hypersensitive to spoilers, and frankly I commend your stalwart commitment to an untarnished cinematic experience, feel free to refrain from continuing until after you’ve seen the film.

Now that we’ve settled that, I’d like to offer my condolences to Wes Craven, whose seminal 1996 film Scream is no longer the most meta horror film of all time; that crown now proudly resting atop Cabin’s brow. The secondary storyline operating in conjunction with the more customary framework is equal parts nod toward all that is glorious about our beloved genre and its sorely needed breath of fresh air. Writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon aren’t just crafting an ephemeral, self-aware piece of horror fiction, but rather they are paying reverent homage to the legacy of the genre while simultaneously calling attention to the process of constructing a modern horror film from a ready-made system of conceits and how that process has become mechanized in recent years; dropping the mic in the face of the industry and walking away.

They’re not satisfied simply casting tropes into the spotlight, as The Cabin in the Woods is less interested in the what and fascinated by the why. It is the most intellectually stirring and sinfully entertaining deconstruction of the genre as has ever been produced. Cabin plays like a master class in horror ideologies and even adds a faux sociocultural/mythic context to horror cinema that allows for the option of viewing all pre-existing and even classic titles with an entirely new perspective. It goes so far as to isolate every single cliche and, through witty inversion and reexamination, transform them into uncomfortably reasonable gospel.  It is therefore a film that celebrates the primal, psychological basis for why we flock to fright flicks in the first place, whether we want to or not.

Cabin in the Woods’ induction into our archive of reviews feels somehow doubly appropriate. At this site, we loudly make the case that horror is not dead…The Cabin in the Woods stands proudly as people’s exhibit A.

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