The Cabin in the Woods Review: Joss Whedon's Smart Essay On Modern Horror

The finest horror comedy in years, The Cabin in the Woods is a potent, hilarious apology for decades of generic horror fare.

rating: 3.5

First things first, The Cabin in the Woods is not a film you should read much about before seeing, and shameless reviewers are likely to spoil many of the savage surprises the film has in store. The marketing campaign for this feisty horror comedy - written by Joss Whedon - gives only the slightest of glimpses into what it is actually about; pitched to viewers as a silly Evil Dead-esque cabin romp with a slight sci-fi edge, it is so much more, a love-letter to good horror, a hate-letter to bad horror, and a delicious skewering of the conventions we have come to both enjoy and despise. The opening credits should provide something of a hint that this is no ordinary horror film; the typically elaborate, sanguine roll call of most modern horror films is promptly upended by the speediest and most economic of title cards, throwing us right into the story. The WTF-meter is cranked up further immediately as the first people we meet are not the sexy teens about to visit the cabin, but two men in a lab of some sort, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. To say much about their role here would be criminal, but they are both the funniest and most interesting components of the film, representing the keenness here to try something new and distance oneself from the tiredness of a procedural slasher premise. We then meet the group of five teens - the only one of whom people will probably recognise is Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth - who are taking a trip up to a cabin for some R&R. On their way, they promptly come across every sort of cliché torn out of the horror film handbook, something I imagine studio executives have probably concocted by now and is not as fictional we might hope. Nevertheless, the crazy locals and peculiar warnings create an unsettling atmosphere in their own right when juxtaposed with the lab scenes. This feeling of unease grows further still once, as seen in the trailer, an eagle flies through the sky, only to crash into a forcefield en route to the cabin. What does this mean? You're not going to find any answers here other than an admission that the film is perhaps best described as a cross-breed of Evil Dead and Cube, a work only invested in its seemingly generic horror setting as much it is the happenings in the mysterious lab. Whedon fields the film's best dialogue out during these scenes; Jenkins and Whitford are especially impressive at keeping a straight face amid a plot that gets more wonderfully, dementedly ludicrous as it pulses along. These scenes also provide a ripe conduit for some unsubtle yet totally hilarious genre satire, sending up J-Horror's obsession with black-haired, pale little girls. On the whole, this feels like the sort of style the palatable but much less-good Tucker and Dale vs. Evil was trying to shoot for. It's a superb composition by Whedon, really; even when the cabin elements seem a little rote, the cutting between this and the laboratory keeps us on our toes and ratchets the suspense level up. That he does this without overt jump scares and tension chords is especially commendable. That said, even in the more conversational build-up between the teens, it is not the condescending shtick we're usually saddled with; characters feel fleshed-out, especially the stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), who gets wind of the stupid decisions the characters are about to make and is promptly ignored, a smart reversal of the stoner's prototypical place in a film like this as killer fodder. Elsewhere, the film presents a lot of the silly things modern horror is rightly derided for; people wanting to split up, oversexed teens stripping down when they should be running off, and manages to come up with a clever way to make fun of it. As a result, in realising the place of the characters in this narrative, they are still likeable despite their stupid decisions, and the film, with its finger firmly on the pulse, is all the better for it. It is difficult to say much else about the film other than that its barmy third reel is worth the price of admission alone, a tonal shift perhaps albeit one which makes sense given the circumstances and will have genre fans clapping their hands with glee. Further mockery of recent horror fare abounds, alongside some of the more inventive kills you're likely to see all year, and finally, a full reveal which makes sense of the film's intentionally generic title. The genius marketing of The Cabin in the Woods will hopefully make it a success; pitched in such a way that it seems safe enough to draw in casual horror fans, while also appearing smart enough for genre buffs and knowing viewers, it is a wonderfully imaginative work, clever and witty yet never condescending or contemptuous towards its audience. The finest horror comedy in years, The Cabin in the Woods is a potent, hilarious apology for decades of generic horror fare. The Cabin in the Woods is set for release on Friday April 13th in the UK and US.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.