So … Turns out I was wrong about “The Cabin in the Woods.” How wrong? Put it this way: If I see a more entertaining and creative movie in the entirety of 2012, I will be very pleasantly surprised.
This is the part where you drop what you’re doing, gather your friends and loved ones, and drag them to the theater to see this thing at least twice before reporting back. Do it now.
Because I know that some of you are sheisty no-accounts who won’t do as I’ve instructed, I will keep this review relatively low on spoilers. Plot-wise, all I will say is that the film involves a group of teens who travel to a cabin in the woods for some naughty fun, and bad things proceed to happen.
However, in order to get at the heart of why “The Cabin in the Woods” represents such a giant leap forward in modern horror filmmaking (and may actually be best described as cinema’s first truly postmodern horror film, despite the deluge of self-aware pseudo-meta genre exercises we’ve been subjected to since “Scream” changed the game almost two decades ago), it will be necessary to allude to certain aspects of the story and their subtextual implications.
So trust me: Just go see it. It is simply inconceivable to me that anyone — young or old, rich or poor, blind or lame, brilliant or dim — could have any reaction to this film other than pure, unadulterated glee.
I love all (or at least most) genres of film, but I’ve always held a special place in my heart for horror movies. The reasons are numerous and perhaps better suited for discussion in another column, but for the purpose of this review let it suffice to say that one of the chief draws of the horror genre in general and the modern horror film in particular — and probably the primary reason I and other horror hounds have seen such a disproportionately large number of genre titles — is the fact that even the “bad” ones have their charms. The genre template has been so thoroughly defined (and redefined) in the past 40 years that viewers usually know exactly what to expect, and can simply have fun observing the use of genre clichés.
And who are we kidding: In the realm of film, it’s simply a gas to watch bad things happen to people, and to cheer on heroes and heroines while at the same time paradoxically waiting patiently for the spectacle of their demise. This pleasure is rooted in the same irrepressible impulse that causes us to look at car accidents on the side of the road, or Google “krokodil.” (Note: If you just went and did that, then don’t blame me for the results.) It’s a mix of morbid curiosity and good old-fashioned schadenfreude, and in any case there’s no denying that the prospect of being disturbed provides a certain primal thrill. Horror movies are, for lack of a better word, fun.
But they are also played out. It seems that everything has been done, and even the best horror titles of recent years can’t claim creativity as their strong suit. It’s painful to say, but you know it, I know it, and the filmmakers behind “The Cabin in the Woods” most certainly know it. The movie is essentially their thesis on the horror genre as a whole, and while they eagerly embrace every cliché imaginable to full effect, their film simultaneously serves as a challenge to other filmmakers to utilize these overly familiar formulas in an entirely different and radical way.
And “The Cabin in the Woods” practices what it preaches, effectively turning the entire genre inside-out by providing not only a point of reference for literally every supernaturally based horror film ever made, but also a complete deconstruction — and, in the end, destruction — of that same filmic universe. (Ultimately, the audience itself is cast in the role of an angry evil god who destroys that which does not adhere to its rigid standards of quality entertainment. And if that doesn’t quite make sense, then I would say you failed to heed my warning and see the film before reading this.) The sheer, mad ambition of such an undertaking cannot be overstated, and writer/director Goddard and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon would deserve an A for effort even if their film didn’t fully succeed.
But succeed it does, on a scale that I had previously thought only theoretically possible. It’s one of those films that seems to have been extracted directly from my own personal movie dreams, tailor-made to suit my specific tastes and cinematic fetishes (“Kick-Ass” and “Drive” would be two other recent examples). I had an ear-to-ear grin on my face the entire time, and at some point in the final act when all hell literally breaks loose, I think I went into some kind of horror geek trance, totally overcome with joy at the bold creativity of what I was seeing on screen. I fear that it may have ruined me for all future movies.
But the beauty of “The Cabin in the Woods” is how accessible it is to general audiences, and not just hardcore genre fans. The intertextual citations are readily apparent — though probably too numerous to catch them all in one or even five viewings — and not too obscure. The explicitness of the violence is set at a reasonable level, delivering the goods for gore hounds but also being careful to avoid offending more delicate tastes (and considering the all-out violent mayhem that comprises the film’s last 20 minutes, the fact that the filmmakers could effectively depict it within the bounds of an R-rated movie at all is rather impressive.)
And above all, the movie is funny — genuinely, refreshingly hilarious, in fact. Between the speakerphone gag (beautiful in its simplicity), the Japanese binding ritual and Bradley Whitford’s inevitable death at the hands of a [REDACTED], I’d say the film has more actual knee-slapping laughs than the vast majority of comedies we see.
There is much more to say about “The Cabin in the Woods” and what it means for the future of the horror genre, but it appears that we’ve run out of column inches. It has become my personal mission in life to get as many people as humanly possible to see this film before it leaves theaters, so in the coming weeks I’m sure I’ll wedge in a couple more discussions about this most unique and unexpected masterpiece of subversive lunacy.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.