Having been shot in much secrecy in 2009, 'Cabin in the Woods' has become something of a cause célèbre amongst genre fans when the insolvency of MGM thrust the film into distribution limbo. Fuelled in no small measure by the presence of fanboy favourite Joss Whedon as co-writer and producer, and with only a couple of minimal posters to go on, many started to wonder if the film was nothing more than an elaborate hoax. Now, finally the film has passed to Lionsgate for a release 3 years later. So, was it worth the wait?
'Cabin in the Woods' is a rather tricky film to review, since its unexpected plotting and subversion of expectations are some of its greatest strengths. This really is a film it's best to know as little about before you go in. It's probably not much of a spoiler to say that the plot involves a group of 5 kids who decide to go and stay in a remote cabin in the woods, and when they are there bad things happen to them. If you've seen the trailer you'll already know that there's also quite a bit going on behind (or rather underneath) the cabin, controlling events. Which sounds like a big spoiler, but the film actually reveals this almost straightaway. What is more interesting is the how and why.
On the surface, 'Cabin in the Woods' is yet another take on the standard low budget staple plot “take a bunch of kids to a cabin and chop them up”. But beneath that surface is a surprisingly sophisticated dissection of how the genre works, as the film breaks down and subverts the clichés. Perhaps an obvious point of comparison here is 'Scream', although 'Cabin in the Woods' is far more inventive, subtle and intelligent in its execution. Rather than merely pointing out and then slyly following the clichés, 'Cabin' also looks at how and why these clichés exist, looking right back to the images of ancient ritual sacrifice that adorns the opening credits. Ever wondered why genre films are so often populated by standard archetypes rather than fully-rounded human characters, or just how hard a scriptwriter has to work to keep his characters from escaping back to civilisation? After 'Cabin in the Woods' it might be impossible to look at a certain breed of horror film in quite the same way.
With Joss Whedon co-scripting alongside 'Buffy' veteran Drew Goddard, a self-reflexive, subversive approach is perhaps to be expected. Also to be expected is plenty of zinging, witty dialogue and on this level 'Cabin' is a rousing success. An eminently quotable script ram-packed with razor-sharp one-liners, 'Cabin' surpasses even the great 'Tucker and Dale vs Evil' as arguably the funniest horror film in recent memory. 'Dollhouse' veteran Fran Kranz has a great time as the stoner of the group, nabbing most of the best lines. Also turning in particularly good comedic performances are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, and there's even a surprise last-act cameo by... well, that would be telling.
So what's wrong with it then? Well, if you go in expecting a straight-up horror film, the clever-clever subversive approach is likely to annoy or confuse, and a certain segment of the audience will doubtless be left completely cold. And whilst 'Cabin' is very funny, and often quite tense and exciting, one thing it isn't, is scary. Smart popcorn-munching fun yes, but if you're after a bit of genuine fright in your horror comedy then you'll be very disappointed. And whilst I personally loved the monsterific final act (thankfully no 'Last Action Hero'-style wimping out on the potential of its concept here), a few people in the screening I attended found it all more than a little ridiculous, and the entire film lacking any kind of plausibility. Which to me is slightly missing the point, but there is certainly an amount of suspension of disbelief required here - and the humour certainly helps in that regard. Also refreshing is an ending which means a prospective sequel would require a prohibitively inflated budget.
With 'Cabin in the Woods', you may not get a mean, badass, gory and terrifying scare-fest. What you do get is a witty, original, intelligent subversion of horror tropes; a package of pure entertainment wrapped in a deeply affectionate love of the genre. A movie aimed clearly at genre fans, it is probably the most original, inventive and downright enjoyable mainstream American horror film in years. Admittedly, that's probably not saying much given that mainstream American horror is currently dominated by cash-grabbing remakes and sleep-inducing found footage films, but that is all the more reason to see 'Cabin in the Woods' and show the studios that there is an audience for original and inventive horror films. Meanwhile, I'm going to watch 'Alien: Resurrection' again, in order to remind myself that not everything Whedon touches turns to gold.