The Cabin in the Woods

A few things before we proceed.

First, as a rule, I’m not a Joss Whedon fan, though to be fair I haven’t seen that much of his stuff (by choice). Firefly seemed pretty okay (though I still haven’t watched all of it, which says something). I also kind of liked Dr. Horrible, but that’s something of a fluke. Buffy is so embarrassingly shit that at this stage I’m perfectly willing to reevaluate friendships on the basis of whether the person is a Buffy fan or not. I hate sound-byte dialogue, which seems to be all he’s capable of. And I was a teenager once, Joss. I don’t necessarily need to be reminded of the hormones and angst every thirty seconds, certainly not by snotty “cool” kids whose heroism is matched only by their capacity for “witty” (i.e., idiotic) one-liners.

(I’m aware that my beloved Mass Effect often falls into a pattern of Joss Whedon-esque dialogue. This is, in my opinion, its greatest flaw, next to that ending.)

But I digress. The Cabin in the Woods is alright. Despite my anti-Whedon bias (Whedon wrote it, along with Drew Goddard) the film is worth a watch. On no level is it even remotely frightening. If I had to label it, I’d call it comedy. There are far more laughs than there are even attempts at scares.

(SPOILERS) The premise, as you’re probably aware by now, is that a shadowy organization of string-pullers are regularly engaged in an elaborate process of luring unsuspecting college-aged kids into stereotypical “horror” scenarios. This serves as a sacrifice to appease some generic, vaguely Lovecraftian elder gods who lie sleeping beneath the earth. We learn that this process has been carried out throughout human history, in different ways in different cultures. The American group responsible for the scheming uses the titular log dwelling-place in the forest as its ritual killing ground, drawing its victims in and forcing them to choose (without knowing it) what manner of supernatural being will stalk and kill the youths.

The unnamed organization responsible for staging the ritual is amusingly white-collar. When the focus is not on the kids in the woods, it shifts to two management-types in their underground bunker, wearing shirtsleeves and ties and boredly planning the scenarios that will lead to the ritual slaughter of the college students. The process has been carried out an untold number of times before, and the jaded execs start a pool among their coworkers to see which supernatural monster the kids will choose as their own executioners.

The monsters are the most interesting part. Somehow, the organization has collected and contained pretty much every supernatural creature imaginable, from zombies and a werewolf and a giant snake, to a ghost and a ballerina with a lamprey-face and a deliberate Pinhead ripoff (this one with a sphere instead of a box, and circular saw blades in his head instead of nails). In the basement of the cabin is a collection of objects, each linked to a different monster, and the college kids are expected to use one of these to unleash the monster to which it’s connected (as college kids do). Our heroes raise a group of zombies, which was a rather uninspired option (and some of the characters make comments to this effect, including one of the execs, who quips that he’s never going to get to see a merman).

But this meta-quality, which is the major selling point of the whole film, is at turns gratifying and annoyingly smug. As a horror fan I appreciate the references to familiar genre tropes. I was particularly amused by the Pinhead-wannabe, and by the doings of the organization’s Japanese branch, which the American group watches on a monitor. In Japan, a group of schoolgirls are beset by a Sadako-style long-haired female ghost, and the scene is so deliberately silly-but-accurate that you can’t help but smile. But I expected more, somehow. I expected an intellectual exploration of the themes that comprise the horror genre, with an insightful metanarrative offering commentary on the motivations of characters that would extend beyond the genre’s confines and have relevance to film or art or life more generally. What I got was a silly, albeit clever, horror comedy.

The problem, really, is one of billing. The film’s official site makes it seem as though The Cabin in the Woods is a groundbreaking horror event, capable of redefining the horror genre, etc. etc. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t, and it can’t. It’s a funny send-up of genre cliches, yes. Unfortunately, that is all it is. It isn’t really meta in the way you expect: it’s entirely self-contained. It’s meta in the way The Truman Show is meta, but like that film it still takes place entirely within its own reality; it’s just that the main characters don’t learn about what’s really going on until the very end. It is not philosophically profound, and it does not even attempt to be. It is comedy, and fairly effective comedy at that. It is not new.

And this is one of the things that gets me about nearly everything Whedon touches. None of it is new, and all of it has been done better by others. So why the hype?

Don’t get me wrong: Cabin is, as I said, worth a watch. Its virtue lies in its deft parody of the slasher sub-genre. I like the implication that all slasher-horror is a part of this ongoing process of ritual sacrifice; that’s funny, and a little bit meta, yes; and it explains the existence of so many terrible horror flicks in a way that almost justifies their existence, if only because they’re necessary to understand what Cabin is spoofing.

I enjoyed this film, and I suggest you watch it, if you haven’t already. On Netflix, when it comes out. Or on cable. But don’t expect it to be what the producers and marketers have billed it as. It is a smart horror comedy (not as smart or as funny as Shaun of the Dead) with some interesting meta elements (not as meta as In the Mouth of Madness). Horror veterans will appreciate the references, smile at the inside jokes, then go back to waiting for Sinister and dreading Sadako 3D.

The Cabin in the Woods is an amusing diversion, and if you go into it expecting that, you won’t be disappointed. 82/100.

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