“This movie came from a place of love. We love horror movies, first and foremost. Joss Whedon—who I wrote this movie with, my partner in crime—we just love horror movies, so we sort of set out to write the ultimate horror movie. At least, the best one we knew how to do. And so it’s really just kind of taking our love of the genre and giving the audience the most fun time we can possibly give them in a horror movie. That’s our goal.” - Drew Goddard
There are three Joss Whedon films out this year - The Avengers, his black and white low-budget version of Much Ado About Nothing, and The Cabin In The Woods. Cabin is the one I most wanted to see… and I was not disappointed at all.
To say much more after that… well, this is the sort of film that can (and has) caused waves of outrage concerning spoilers, so I’m going to split this look at the film into three parts.
Cabin is an exploration of horror genre motifs by Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard (creator of Cloverfield, veteran of Buffy, Angel and Alias, making his directorial debut). It’s funny, clever, dark, and the most enjoyable 90 minutes I’ve spent in a cinema in a long time.
Cabin’s release was delayed over two years (partly due to the studio dithering over whether or not to post-convert the film to 3D, which Whedon & Goddard fought), and in the resulting gap one of its stars has become hugely famous. Mutterings and rumours about the film throughout that time have whetted its prospective audience’s appetite. I think the wait was well worth it. (For a more extensive, yet still miraculously spoiler-free, review, I commend you to my colleague John Warrender, at Shades of Caruso.)
SOME Spoilers: (Spoils nothing more than what’s shown or implied in the trailer & nothing beyond Act Two)
The first five minutes of Cabin immediately tells you that this isn’t just another “kids go into woods, get killed” tale. The film opens in one of those huge underground complexes beloved of Bond films, where you need a golf cart to get around the place. Two colleagues begin their work day, discussing problems with a third. Something critical happens today. Something they control.
Smash-cut to Titles…
There’s these five college kids, and they’re going to party for the weekend in the eponymous Cabin. They fit into a familiar set of stereotypes: Curt, The Athlete (Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth); Jules, The Whore (Anna Hutchison); Holden, The Scholar (Jesse Williams); Marty, The Fool (Fran Kranz, Topher Brink from Dollhouse, in one of the best stoner performances of all time) and Dana, The Virgin (Kristen Connolly).
Except… they’re not actually like that at all.
Curt’s as smart as Holden, and they’re both in athletic shape. Jules is a bright pre-med student and not especially slutty to begin with. Dana isn’t a virgin. And events soon show Marty’s probably the wisest of the five. But by the time they’ve been in the Cabin a while, they become more and more like these cliches.
This is not accidental - it’s all part of the purpose of the technicians we saw in the opening, residents of Downstairs. The Cabin, and the area around it, are Upstairs - the focus of Downstairs’ attention even before the five leave for the Cabin. Jules, for example, has been slipped an intellect-suppressing and libido-enhancing drug in her blonde hair dye…
Once at the cabin (passing through the inevitable “ancient gas station with surly old attendant”, which gives rise to one of the funniest scenes in the film), the cliches (bathing in a lake, drunken truth-or-dare games) take greater and greater hold… culminating in a scene in the cabin basement where each of the five picks up a strange object from the many in that classically creepy room, each tied in to some specific horror threat - while Downstairs watches on hidden CCTV, taking bets on which horror will soon be unleashed.
A choice is made. A terrible thing rises. And people start to die.
It becomes clear that Downstairs aren’t doing this just for fun. There’s a purpose, a ritual is being followed - and not only here: the Downstairs monitors show similar scenarios across the world (including a classic Japanese longhair ghost in a Tokyo school). The Downstairs workaday humour covers a darker aspect. And as the body count rises, it’s clear something (possibly whatever is served by that ritual) is causing the ritual to go very wrong.
The crescendo of the third act builds wonderfully, with a bewildering and occasionally hilarious array of classic horror motifs, to an ending that is both subversive and satisfying.
BIG Spoilers: (Talks about Act Three, but doesn’t completely ruin the ending)
By the time the remaining members of the Five actually make it Downstairs and confront/release the full range of horrors contained therein, it’s pretty clear that the film isn’t just setting out to entertain (which it does admirably) - it’s a deconstruction of the horror genre, the act of writing and film-making, and the audience itself.
We are as complicit as whatever Nameless Gods demanded the ritual, requiring (even relishing) the cheap thrills evoked, regardless of the cost to the terrified and dying. (A key scene in this regard is Curt and Jules making out in the woods - the Downstairs control room fills with onlookers, waiting to see Jules bare her breasts, randy and hungry as any slasher flick audience.)
This is not to say that the film is dry and scholarly at any point. The deeper levels flow naturally from the tale, and that third act is just splendid - pretty much every monster you an think of is there, from a variety of Zombies to giant snakes to (my personal favourite) the Hellraiser pastiche credited as ‘Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain’.
By the time The Director of Downstairs (a perfectly cast Sigourney Weaver) appears to tell the survivors one of them has to kill the other or the world will end, we’ve witnessed destruction on a vicious (and gleefully entertaining) scale. The ending caps this rather aptly.
The one main criticism I’ve seen of the film - that it values the cleverness of its homage and deconstruction just a little more than the horror - is a valid one, I think. There’s a slight distancing from it all which doesn’t quite allow for the audience to be fully engaged to the point of actual horror. But frankly, I was so entertained by it all I really didn’t mind.
The performances are uniformly good (especial praise for the aforementioned Kranz, and Richard Jenkins & Bradley Whitford as the main Downstairs techs). Goddard does a hell of a job in his directing debut, both with the cast and the complex SFX set-ups. The sheer love for the genre bursts out of every scene. There are dozens of quotable lines for the high-end fan. And the massive array of in-jokes, Easter Eggs and hat-tips for the horror fan positively demand a re-watch, using the pause button a lot.
Whedon fans will be in clover - between the Amy Acker & Tom Lenk appearances and what looks an awful lot like a quick rerun of the Reavers’ first attack on Miranda from Serenity, the film more than earns its place in the Mutant Enemy pantheon. And frankly, any film which introduces the idea of Chekov’s Telescoping Bong gets points for that alone.
Short form - I love this film and can’t wait to see it again. Hope you enjoy it too.