The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods destroys itself. You don’t see very many movies do that, especially movies that open on 2,800 screens. It shows you the machinery inside itself, and then blows up the machinery. It’s a horror movie about horror movies; it destroys horror movies, too. It’s a bit on the cold side, as a lot of clever films are. It’s a semester of horror tropes packed into 95 tight minutes, with sidebar snark about bureaucrats. It’s the work of two wise guys — writer-director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon — sitting in the back of the classroom, snorting disdainfully about the cheap stuff horror movies scare us with but also admitting that the cheap stuff is fun. The Cabin in the Woods has too much on its agenda to be truly scary (though it has its moments), but it’s the most fun I’ve had at a horror film since Trick ‘R Treat, which also toyed with horror clichés. It’s a big gift bag handed to horror fans with a cheerful invitation to root around inside.

Cabin starts out mysteriously, at an antiseptic facility manned by blasé techs. In the first of the movie’s really good jokes, we freeze-frame on a dull shot of two of the techs — played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as regular-guy mad scientists — and the movie’s title comes up, in huge, red, screen-filling letters. But where’s the cabin? Where are the woods? It seems designed to confuse the uninitiated. We get the cabin and the woods soon enough, as a quintet of college kids go off for a weekend. Goddard and Whedon sketch them in for us with quick, deft strokes — the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the virgin (Kristen Connolly), the party girl (Anna Hutchison), the stoner (Fran Kranz), the brain (Jesse Williams). They don’t know that they’re in a horror film or that they represent very familiar horror-film types.

That’s about all you should know going in; there are surprises beyond the obvious twist given away in the first five minutes. I can try to be oblique, though. Horror is chaos encroaching on order: when an idyllic summer afternoon drive becomes a nightmare, to quote the opening crawl from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or when the boogeyman comes, as in Halloween. In this movie, the horror is precise and controlled — the horror is order. And eventually, when true chaos arrives to scatter that order, horror fans everywhere will break into a wicked grin, and perhaps laughter. It’s as though the collective ghosts of horror past focused their wrath on the man-children and idiots who have held horror hostage for years with boring, derivative stories, remakes, sequels: this is the Whedon film that should be called The Avengers. And maybe it’s just me, but I thought David Julyan’s score kept threatening to turn into Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” otherwise known as the ooh-spooky pipe-organ music from 1962’s Phantom of the Opera and a hundred others.

Aside from how it plays roughly and relentlessly with what we expect from a horror film, does Cabin work as, well, a horror film, or is it a meta-essay like Funny Games? Goddard and Whedon aren’t into punishing the audience for what we came to see, what we want to see; that isn’t their game. They would, however, like us to think about why we come to see and want to see certain things in a horror film — why horror filmmakers work so hard to appease our base appetites for destruction. Their project goes deeper than a comparatively shallow exercise in deconstruction like the Scream franchise. That said, yes, the movie does work as an example of what it’s examining; it’s a bit like Alan Moore’s Watchmen that way, in that it looks under the hood while acknowledging that the rusty, oily engine still runs, otherwise why bother looking at it? People still stupidly isolate themselves and die violently, and that still works our nerves the same old way.

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