One sentence synopsis: Five college students go to a remote cabin and fall prey to a horrible fate.
Things Havoc liked: I am not a fan of horror movies. The entire genre is basically lost on me, as I don't find the spectacle of watching awful things happen to undeserving people to be either fulfilling or beneficial. I recognize that this is an unfair characterization of the genre, the pinnacles which are masterpieces of craftsmanship and atmosphere such as Alien, Exorcist, or the Thing. It is simply a matter of taste in my case, similar to my antipathy towards Romantic Comedies, and I have avoided reviewing horror films for this weekly exercise to-date because I simply do not believe that I have the proper background or objectivity to speak to their quality. So it was with some reluctance that I sat down to watch The Cabin in the Woods, on the strength of very strong recommendations from friends and family, and prepared myself to witness the usual routine of teenagers and twenty-somethings being transformed progressively from living beings to dead meat.
That expectation lasted ten seconds.
The Cabin in the Woods was created by the always-polarizing Joss Whedon, in conjunction with Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard, a partnership that has already produced many hit television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Whedon is many things to many people, and there is a current within the nerd community that believes him strongly overrated, but he has always been fond of twisting the genre conventions of whatever genre he happens to be working in at the moment in a way that most other directors and writers merely pay lip service to. As such, describing this film as a horror movie does not properly do it justice. The movie plays with expectations to a degree I don't think I've ever seen in any film before, changing entire genres not once but multiple times, in a send-up to every horror film concept imaginable. The best comparison I can give is perhaps the Scream movies, only where Scream merely toyed with the concept of a self-aware horror film, this movie doesn't merely dive into the concept, but then rejects that notion in turn, and peels back another layer. It's actually fascinating.
You will notice I'm not saying much about the plot. The reason for this is that I don't believe I can say much about it without spoiling something, and here, the very explanation of what even the initial plot is will serve as a spoiler of sorts. Better, perhaps, to discuss the cast, which though comprised mostly of people I've never heard of, is spot-on-point from start to finish. The five leads play characters that are superficially the usual archetypes that one finds in the film, the Jock, the sexpot, the stoner, etc, but all of them are played with subtle nuance that renders them into actual characters, rather than simple sketches, and provides the answer to the age old question of why such disparate archetypes would ever associate with one another. The only one I recognize is Chris Hemsworth, of Thor fame, who here is frankly just as good as he was in that previous film. Special accolades should go to Fran Kranz, whom I've never heard of before, whose stoner philosopher is drop-dead hilarious (and not in the usual 'laugh at the stoned guy' way), and who truly steals the show in at least half a dozen scenes.
The antagonists, of which there are many, are headed off by, of all people, Bradley Whitford (of the West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (of The Visitor), both of whom turn in wonderful, funny(!), believable, and tremendously entertaining performances that remind of me of Aaron Sorkin's work (though that may be because Whitford seems to be playing Josh Lyman in his post-White House career, not that I object). If you're having trouble imagining how these two men in their 50s and 60s, both famous as realistic, sardonic character actors, manage to play the antagonists in a horror film and do it well, then all I can say is that the film manages to do just that. To say more would be to reveal matters that of plot, and in this case, the plot is the point. Finally, there are a couple of cameos, particularly one at the end which, if one is cognizant of the genre (which one ought be if one wishes to get everything out of this film), are simply wickedly-awesome, and must be seen to be believed.
Things Havoc disliked: Of all the five main leads, I wasn't wildly fond of Kristen Connoly, who seemed a bit too worldly to be playing the character she was (the bookish shy girl). As I said, everyone's archetype is twisted here to round them out and make them actual interesting characters, but I thought her rounding wasn't done as well as everyone else's, and that her performance as a result felt less real. This may be a factor of the high standard to which she is being compared, but it did stick out.
More importantly, and you all must forgive me for being coy on this subject, I did not find the ending of the film to be satisfying. I understand where it comes from, given the irreverent disembowelment of the usual rotes of the genre, and I certainly can't accuse the movie of either failing to make sense logically or failing to have the courage of its convictions. But given the characters that we've been presented with, and their general likeability, the decisions made at the end of the film struck me as very off-putting, a case of the screenwriters ceasing to simply wink at the audience and stepping out from behind their curtain. That can work sometimes (Inglorious Basterds for instance), when the film's tone has lent itself to the decisions made at the end of the movie, but as the tone, detached as it was, did not establish itself properly in this case, I felt the ending was a let-down. Your mileage may vary.
Final thoughts: I've been surprised by the quality of movies before, but rarely have I been as surprised as this. The Cabin in the Woods transcends its genre, indeed it may transcend all genres, and stands as a film that I can unhesitatingly recommend not only to aficionados of Horror (of which I am not), but to any moviegoer mired in the still-lingering doldrums and looking for something different to see (of which I definitely am). Say what you will about Joss Whedon's quality as a storyteller, the man knows how to produce daring and even riveting work, and here has generated a true masterpiece, one that, if there is any justice in the world, will easily displace Scream as the archetype of a truly modern horror film.
Final Score: 8.5/10