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Brian Kelley

March 9th, 2012


Editor's note: This review was first published on March 9th, 2012 at the SXSW Film Festival

Because the best way to experience THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is with as few expectations and little exposure to its plot elements as possible, this review begins with all the excited raving usually reserved for the last paragraph. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is just about everything horror fans could have hoped for from a cabin slasher bearing the geek-approved Whedon stamp. It's clever in ways that seem obvious at first but its true brilliance rests in places much deeper than what seems in the beginning to be a surface-level gimmick. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS never winks, never nods, never nudges the audience with its elbow while wearing a stupid grin, it tugs on the very strings of horror films and their cliches until they snap and then reassembles them in a brand new patchwork of genre. Making things even better, even while THE CABIN IN THE WOODS takes a serious look at the underpinnings of horror, it does so in a way that keeps things tremendously and audaciously entertaining from start to truly epic finish.

*Mild spoilers follow*

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS reveals its hand in the very first scene. For a movie that boldy announces its intended sub-genre in the title, it's a bit startling to begin things in the squeaky clean, sterilized world of some underground research facility where two men, Steve (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Bradley Whitford), are gearing up for another day's work. At first, they seem to lack any connection to the group of young men and women to whom the audience is about to be introduced.

The assortment of potential victims includes all the necessary caricatures. There's the hunk Curt (Chris Hemsworth pre-THOR), his sexy girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), studius beauty Dana (Kristen Connolly), football star and minority representative Alex (Brian White) and the stoner comic relief/voice of reason Marty (Fran Kranz). It becomes apparent rather quickly, though, that while these characters fit some pretty well engrained molds, their personalities are more dynamic than their cliched foundations would at first suggest. This sharp writing - working within the realm of the established tropes but expanding them, turning them inside out and otherwise reshaping them as part of the narrative- continues throughout the whole film.

After such-and-such reason for going out to a remote cabin is established, the group piles into an RV and heads towards the woods. They have the requisite unsettling encounter with a local on the way as they are warned to turn back lest they meet some sort of unspecified doom. It's not too long after they arive at their destination that they notice things are not quite right. Odd touches to the cabin such as a two-way mirror between bedrooms are curious, but the kids are there to party and party they will. However, the fun is cut short when something begins killing them off one by one.

It's hard to go into much depth about the role Steve and Richard, from the opening scene, play in the story of the horrors at the cabin in the woods without ruining the best moments of the film. The mention of their observation and perhaps effecting of some of what is going on at the cabin should be enough to clue any astute reader into the high-concept blood flowing through the veins of THE CABIN IN THE WOOD. Even while watching it, though, anyone who thinks he has it all figured out will find himself in a chin-in-lap type of situation when the final reel- full of indescribable amounts of imagination and mayhem- slaps the audience in the face with the answers to all lingering questions.

From a technical standpoint, everything about THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is sufficient, an observation not meant to be any sort of faint praise. The film almost has the flatness and haphazardly lit scenes of lazy teen horror flicks, all in keeping with the authentic aesthetic. Aside from some unfortunately lackluster moments of CG, most of the effects are practical and are hidden in enough shadow as to be effectively horrific. The cast all fall easily into their assigned roles, understanding their stereotypical roots while each having the chops to pull off the clever cliche inversions found in the script, co-written by director Drew Goddard (CLOVERFIELD) and Joss Whedon. Fran Kranz is a true standout here. His early detection of peculiar goings-on as well as his (frequently hilarious) recognition of the strange choices being made around him are a personification of the audiences processing of the horror story playing out. Even his role, though, is a clever tool in the Goddard-Whedon bag as he proves to be an instrument that allows the audience to peek behind the curtain.

Neither Whedon nor Goddard has any need to pay dues to the geek club at this point. Their existing bodies of work speak for themselves. What the pair has successfully done here is apply their sharp-eyed filters to the horror film in such a way that they don't necessarily make a bold statement on that kind of movie but instead cleverly repackage the idea of horror itself. It's an impressive feat to turn familiar into entertaining again, all while having a hidden agenda and a whole new take on the genre - it's a rather lofty goal. It feels like THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is a definitive statement about what horror movies should be all while showing studios, future filmmakers, and audiences how to enjoy genre filmmaking full of fresh, intelligent ideas.

Grade: A

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