The teens in peril premise has been one of the firm foundations of modern horror since Halloween and kick-started the genre as we know it in the late 70s. Since then, endless films have taught us that young people who indulge in questionable behaviour—whether it be alcohol, drugs or pre-marital sex—will suffer the most horrific of consequences; from Evil Dead to Saw and Donkey Punch, the moral message and its gory implications remain the same. So we all know what to expect from this latest entry into this overstuffed genre, right?
For, as he has proved time and again with TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse to films like Toy Story and the forthcoming Avengers Assemble, Joss Whedon is a writer who really knows how to both subvert and re-energise a stagnant genre. And so it is with the long-delayed Cabin in the Woods. Sure it has a familiar set up—a group of teens head off to an isolated woodland retreat for a debauched weekend only to be met by unimaginable horrors. And it has shed-loads of age-old horror tropes, including the weird old gas station attendant with prophecies of doom and a dusty basement full of creepy ephemera.
But that’s where any familiarities end; with the opening scene, it becomes clear that this is something altogether different. It’s a narrative kink of epic proportions, one that you should ensure you know nothing about before going in, but one that, thankfully, the audience is privy to from the very beginning; thanks to this swift and painless subversion of expectations, we can sit back and enjoy the ride without trying to piece clues together.
Far from being a simple, run of the mill horror, this is as high concept as they come; it works because Whedon’s script has been expertly well-crafted, because the cast play their roles to perfection and because director and co-writer Drew Goddard (screenwriter of Buffy the VampireSlayer, Angel, Alias and Cloverfield) clearly knows a winning formula when he sees one and doesn’t feel the need to over-egg the pudding—even when it comes to the cataclysmic climax.
What emerges, then, is not only great horror, but also great satire—not just about the lethargy of modern horror cinema but also wider human notions of morality and empathy—and what’s truly impressive is that neither element overshadows the other. It may sound like a lazy critic’s get-out, but to reveal any more would be to genuinely spoil one of the most entertaining genre movies in years, one whose multi-layered delights should be discovered by its audience at the time of watching. Indeed, even if all spoiler notions were thrown aside, there is no conceivable way that any written or verbal explanation of the intricacies of this film could ever do it justice. Suffice it to say, then, that Cabin in the Woods is scary, smart and funny in equal measure, and a film that you absolutely need to see for yourself.
An edited version of this review appeared in movieScope 27 (March/April 2012)
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