‘The Cabin in the Woods’ challenges horror film cliches

Despite its release afterward, "The Cabin in the Woods" was filmed two years before Chris Hemsworth's (pictured in the middle) breakthrough in "Thor."

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Despite its release afterward, "The Cabin in the Woods" was filmed two years before Chris Hemsworth's (pictured in the middle) breakthrough in "Thor."

Justin Wood

jwood9@radford.edu

Not a lot can be said about this film for risk of spoiling it for future audiences. It isn’t so much a matter of ruining plot twists (though there are many to be had), but rather for fear of compromising the act of experiencing its ideas for yourself. This discovery, the moment you start to find out what “The Cabin in the Woods” is really about, is bound to be one of the defining movie moments for me this year, and it stands as one of the best commercial American horror films of the last ten years.

As trailers have no doubt already informed you, the set up of the film is basic. Five college kids are headed to a remote vacation house that is a dead ringer for the blood-soaked cabin of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead.” They each superficially fit the traditional stereotypes of a slasher film cast: there’s the handsome jock, the slutty blond, the sensitive guy, the stoner, and of course, the ‘good’ girl. As they begin their vacation their lives suddenly start to look a whole lot like every bad slasher film since they started making more “Friday the 13th’s,” a situation that’s intentionally being created by malicious forces. Then people start dying.

Writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who also serves as director, are familiar with spinning genre conventions on their heads. In the 90s Whedon famously took the horror world’s blonde cheerleader, the brainless victim, and had her reborn as a superhero in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” More importantly, however, Whedon resisted the urge to write her as a featureless sex kitten, and despite her proclivity towards tight leather pants and bare midriffs, Buffy evolved into a fully rendered character, often evoking an almost sister-like affection from viewers as they became engaged. Whedon took a sexual stereotype and turned her into a person, with all the dreams, courage, and fragility that makes one.

Whedon’s approach to Buffy is central to ‘Cabin’s’ whole thesis. What if the dumb jock isn’t dumb? And the slutty blonde is a pretty average, if extremely attractive, young woman? As the vacation procedes, we see a group of likable young people pushed and prodded to act like the bland poorly written archetypes that modern horror films have conditioned us to expect, and it’s that loss of humanity that’s truly frightening. It’s a theme Whedon explored in the criminally ignored “Dollhouse,” and what makes ‘Cabin’ authentically horrifying. When we see characters we’ve actually come to like going through the predictable motions of a bad movie we’re struck by a very invasive kind of horror. Most (though increasingly less) slashers try to get you to want the characters to survive. In ‘Cabin’s’ case, discomfort comes from the knowledge that because of their predetermined roles they can’t survive. They aren’t killed by monsters, but by the predictability of a genre that has grown to see people as disposable.

If this sounds a bit heavy for a Friday evening, don’t worry. I’ve been surprised at the number of people I’ve talked to who watched the film, missed the point, and enjoyed it anyways, undoubtedly due to how damn fun this movie is to watch. The script is a meta masterpiece, loaded with Whedon’s signature humor; endlessly quotable and destined for cult movie history. First-time director Goddard moves the film along with a staggering energy and intensity. The cast, at the time of shooting unknowns or at least not particularly famous, bring everything they’ve got, with Kristen Connelly and frequent Whedon collaborator Fran Kranz being the standouts of the five victims.

With all that’s been said I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of what “Cabin in the Woods” is about, or what the movie has in store for unsuspecting audiences. My jaw dropped when the film finally exploded, a firestorm of creative energy that I still can’t believe made it to theaters. It’s a celebration and a bitter critique of the horror genre, but it never stops being fun and surprising, a real rarity when intelligence and entertainment seem to be, by some unspoken agreement, divided.

Even if you don’t go to ‘Cabin’ for a head-trip, you’ll still walk out quoting the best lines and chattering excitedly about the final frame. But for those who do? If you’re a writer it’ll make you want to be a better one. If you’re a film fan it’ll make you want to support better movies. If you work at Platinum Dunes, hopefully it’ll make you want to end it all. It’s a movie that speaks to everyone differently, but when the film builds to its frenetic vengeful climax you can see it in an audience’s eyes; at that moment it’s speaking everyone’s language.