‘The Cabin in the Woods’
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Williams, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison
Rated: R, for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity
Runtime: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Bottom line: Surprisingly good
As a horror movie, “The Cabin in the Woods” is pretty good.
As a movie in general, it’s an ingenious, devilishly witty sleight of hand.
The movie’s arrival is heralded by the most mundane, cliché marketing material possible. The title refers to the central device of “Evil Dead,” the “Friday the 13th” franchise and any number of other slasher movies.
And just ponder the cobwebs clinging to this worn-out synopsis: “Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods.”
Drunk, horny college students go to woods and die one-by-one. We’ve seen that dozens of times.
Except, it turns out that the “truth behind the cabin” is not at all what we expect.
Four randy college students — Dana (Kristen Connolly), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), and Holden (Jesse Williams) — and their stoner friend, Marty (Fran Kranz), retreat to Curt’s cousin’s isolated lake cabin for the weekend.
Each is a typical, realistic college kid, but by the time they reach the cabin, they have all begun to conform to a particular stock character of the slasher movie.
Jules becomes the promiscuous blonde. Curt morphs into a letter jacket-wearing, beer-chugging jock. Holden assumes the role of the earnest, kind-hearted minority character. Dana, who apparently just had some sort of affair with a professor, suddenly takes on the function of the virginal, pure girl.
We all know what usually happens to each one of these character types, right?
The only character who remains himself is Marty. The running joke is that his constant marijuana smoking somehow makes him immune to whatever is forcing everyone else to devolve into caricature. Or, perhaps he doesn’t change because he is a caricature from the get-go?
What these characters don’t know, though, is that a handful of technicians in a control room are manipulating everything. The cabin and every other variable of the situation is a setup, right down to the old coot (Tim De Zarn) the kids encounter when they stop for gas.
The mystery for us is why this is happening. That is the truth behind the cabin, and the filmmakers reveal that truth tantalizingly slowly until it reaches a climax which offers one of the best depictions of pandemonium in the history of horror.
“The Cabin in the Woods” is a collaboration between Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Serenity”) and Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield,” “Lost”), and it bears the “meta” quality that is the trademark of their work.
The whole time the story proper is playing out, what we’re really doing is exploring why horror stories offer such powerful, unending allure.
Horror films have always been a means for human beings to ponder, indulge and work through their deepest, primordial fears. It’s a catharsis, a way to safely feed and therefore pacify — for a while — the beast within each of us.
The movie can be read as a metaphor for why horror movies not only kill most of their characters, but torture them all along the way.
The kill itself isn’t the most enjoyable moment. Most of us watch horror for the suspense, the character’s prolonged anguish leading up to the kill. The more protracted and torturous, the more enjoyable.
And what does that make us, the viewers? Voyeuristic consumers of torture. The obvious question, then, is why we need that.
“The Cabin in the Woods” brilliantly makes these ideas literal in ways that capture the spirit of our time yet also communicate a timeless truth about why scary stories exist at all.
It’s also hilarious. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play the main technicians with a ruthless glee, and Kranz nails his character.
This horror movie is infinitely smarter than expected and funnier than most comedies. It’s a must-see for horror fans.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.