Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods was originally slated to hit theaters sometime in 2010, and after I saw the film last Friday night I imagined the wait for them to the their film finally released, a hold up caused by MGM’s money troubles, must have been especially grueling. I can’t help but thinking that Goddard and Whedon suspected they really had something here, even if that something was merely a really good time at the movies, which is in any case certainly nothing to sneeze at.
But if what they have is something beyond merely a good time at the movies, what is it exactly? Another thing I thought while watching The Cabin in the Woods was that it would be really nice if talented guys like Goddard and Whedon could make a horror film that wasn’t about the fact that it was a horror film. Or that fewer contemporary filmmakers believed that one of the essential components of a horror film is that it be a comedy. And so on. But in fairness to Goddard and Whedon – Goddard, who directed, co-wrote the film with Whedon, who also produced – they’re really goddamn clever, and, as a result, The Cabin in the Woods is a really goddamn clever movie, one that eventually broke down all – okay, most – of my defenses. Plus, it’s not like it blindsides you with its irony, if that’s really what we’re dealing with here. Contrary to the belief of some people, The Cabin in the Woods is not full of plot twists and reversals. As horror writer and critic Kim Newman has pointed out, it’s not a film with a twist; it’s a film with a premise. The film begins with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, the film’s most powerful weapons, engaging in small talk about fertility and cabinets and so forth while ambling around their vaguely science-y, vaguely governmental, vaguely military workplace. What that workplace is, and what it’s for, is what some people are regarding as a twist, but what must more accurately be regarded as the story the film is telling. In any case, this scene leads to maybe the funniest title card I’ve ever seen, the appearance of which should destroy any illusions you might have about what kind of film, tonally speaking, this is.
Yet while “twist” is the wrong word, I’m still loathe to reveal where the story goes. I mean, why ruin the fun? Myself, I was ultimately very glad to go into this thing cold, as much as possible anyway, and I was also pleased that I saw the film on opening night, since the commercials that have aired on TV since include images I wouldn’t have wanted in my head, anticipating when they’d arrive as I sat there watching the film. So if you haven’t seen the film, I don’t know what to tell you, other than marketing sucks, I guess. But where the story begins, after the Whitford/Jenkins prologue, is with five post-graduate students – a stoner (Fran Kranz), a blonde, party-ish type girl (Anna Hutchison), a smart jock (Chris Hemsworth), another smart jock who is I guess less of a jock than the other one (Jesse Williams), and our heroine (Kristen Connolly), the more demure of the two females, who is not actually a virgin but who will eventually find herself behaving, to her surprise, as though she was – heading out on vacation to a cabin, which is in the woods, belonging to Hemsworth’s cousin. On their way there they meet a creepy and rude gas station attendant (Tim de Zarn) who lets fly with some smirking warnings about the cabin – he’s one of those characters who will warn you that you’re heading towards your doom but will not hide the fact that he’s kind of hoping you don’t listen to him – and you, the audience, are quite aware that you’ve seen all this before, and since the scenes with the young folk are given, at this stage, no particular spin or, I don’t know, spark, it’s hard to not hope that the curious Jenkins/Whitford stuff, which has by now begun to sprinkle itself throughout the proceedings, turns out to be something at least a little bit novel.
Well, good news, because it does. I don’t think it’s revealing too much, and anyway I don’t know how I could continue with this review without making note of this, that Whitford and Jenkins’ job is, and the whole governmental-esque facility where they work exists to, plan, control and orchestrate the horror film mayhem that is about to befall our young heroes, and to do so with a very conscious understanding of the tropes and clichés that surround the other, very different kind of movie that is transpiring in that cabin in the woods. So yes, it’s like that, but it’s a good thing that it’s like that. The Whitford/Jenkins material (and it’s not just them, Amy Acker is there, too, and is very good, as is Brian White as a military man whose burgeoning conscience adds a bit of heft to the whole thing) serves to save the cabin material, which if anything can occasionally threaten to become too self consciously by-the-numbers. This is by design, but is also, practically by definition, potentially enervating. It teeters on the edge, at least, and the Whitford/Jenkins stuff is sometimes called on to steer everything away from the precipice, which it very ably does by virtue of having all the best jokes, and also all the intrigue, mystery, and inventiveness the cabin scenes intentionally lack.
About jokes, briefly. The Cabin in the Woods is a funny movie, occasionally very funny, but I'd like to pick a nit or two. There are two kinds of jokes that bug me which The Cabin in the Woods engages in. Not egregiously, but enough to make me want to bring it up. One is the kind where one character will say something that no one would ever say just so another character can deliver the punchline. This kind of strained set-up/knock down is what I shall now refer to as the Social Network Gershwin Joke. The other kind bothers me a little bit more, because it means a good joke gets diminished. What happens in The Cabin in the Woods is Bradley Whitford is given a terrific throwaway line that turns out to not be a throwaway. Goddard and/or Whedon believe, and many other writers agree, that everything must be paid off eventually, so the terrific throwaway is forced to build to something else. And it doesn't even build to anything great. If I told you the line, and gave you some context, you could predict what the payoff will be. Meanwhile, the great throwaway has to now be looked at askance. This is a little bit like the need to explain everything in a horror film, or remove the mysterious dread. It's not quite the same as explaining a joke, curiously enough, but like horror movie explanations it restricts the audience's imagination, which is part of what makes the original, now only onstensibly, throwaway so funny. This is, in fact, my one big gripe about Shaun of the Dead, a film I otherwise adore.
But in the end that's okay, because The Cabin in the Woods has a lot more to offer. This is a stretch, but what they're going for here is not entirely unlike what Poe was after with "Premature Burial." I don't want to make too much of this, because that would be ridiculous, and I suspect I'm only making the connection because Poe has been on my mind due to the pending release of that, I can only assume, piece of horse-, bull-, and dogshit The Raven, but anyway, in that story Poe essentially sketched out the psychology of the horror genre, and laid bare why he wrote the kinds of stories he wrote. It's possibly his masterpiece, and in that sense, the sense of weight and power and all that, it's nothing at all like The Cabin in the Woods. But Goddard and Whedon sort of are trying to encapsulate modern horror and its hold on us within this one crazy little movie. In doing so, they sometimes slip under the weight of their ambition -- for instance, some of the references to other horror films are very general, while one or two are off-puttingly specific, such as one to Bryan Bertino's The Strangers that is so precisely about that movie that for a little while The Cabin in the Woods starts to feel like a spoof -- but their film shouldn't be written off as a goof. It's deeply thought-out, if not especially deep itself. And besides, if nothing else, it's a really good story, well told, one that only gets more interesting and satisfying as it goes along. The answer to the question of what this is all in aid of is one of my favorite things about The Cabin in the Woods. How often can anyone say that?