This was the directorial debut for Drew Goddard. He had started out writing for Whedon on both the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel television series. He then transitioned to the TV shows Alias and Lost where he worked for J.J. Abrams. He later wrote the screenplay for the Abrams-produced 2008 movie Cloverfield. It was in 2009 that he and Whedon finished the script for The Cabin in the Woods that they had been kicking around for years, and Goddard got to direct the movie. The studio didn’t know what to make of it, so they shelved it.
Fast forward to 2011 and the movie Thor is released. In addition to being popular, it is a lead in to an announced Avengers movie that will be coming in 2012 – to be directed by none other than Joss Whedon. Someone at the studio must have said, “Hey, didn’t we have a movie that Whedon was involved with and that had that Thor guy (Chris Hemsworth) in it?” They did, so they dusted off The Cabin in the Woods and released it just a few weeks before The Avengers hit theaters. Critics really liked it (92% at Rotten Tomatoes); audiences were a little less enthusiastic (76%), probably because it wasn’t the kind of movie they were expecting from the marketing, which had made it look like your standard horror film.
The movie opens not with a death, a killer, a group of young photogenic people, or even any kind of thrill at all. Instead it shows two middle aged men in some kind of huge facility just talking about mundane aspects of life like any other two boring co-workers would. That probably lost some people right there. The men are Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford). A woman named Lin (Whedon-alum Amy Acker) approaches them with an issue with “the Swedish group”, but they tell her not to worry because “the Japanese group” always comes through.
The scene switches and we do finally get to meet the five college students who are going to be taking a trip to, you guessed it, a cabin in the woods. They are Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Marty (Whedon-alum Fran Kranz), and Holden (Jesse Williams). Some throwaway references are made to the fact that most of them have been acting strange lately and that getting away will do them some good.
We find out that Sitterson and Hadley are monitoring these students for some reason. As the film goes on we see a lot of the standard horror movie clichés – from the unfriendly local, to the scary objects in the cabin, to the five students seeming to fit into the generic Horror Types (more on that in a bit.) The students have no idea they are being watched. They of course trigger a deadly threat (in this case an old family brought back from the dead) and they start being “horror-fied”. In the midst of this, one of them finally finds a small camera attached to a cable and realizes that something even stranger is going on here. This is only the first half of the film. Where things go from there, and why all of this is happening, is what sets this film apart from most other horror movies, so I will not be spoiling it (except for a small piece of it as part of the discussion of archetypes in a well-marked spoiler section below.)
Much of the humor comes from the people working in the huge, mysterious facility. There are ongoing conversations between Sitterson and Hadley, with other characters dropping in now and then. One of the funnier scenes is the betting pool the office workers have going on what creatures these students are going to call up to kill them. There’s a small appearance by another Whedon-alum Tom Lenk as Ronald the Intern.
We also see the two main guys watching monitors of
Sweden and where other culturally specific horror scenarios are playing out. Japan Japan shows a bunch of schoolgirls being terrorized by a spirit, while shows some kind of failure with a house burning. By the way, the best guess of this non-horror fan is that the “culturally Swedish” horror scenario refers to some of the films of Ingmar Bergman, but I could be wrong. Sweden
I mentioned earlier that the five students fit into the generic horror types mold. This turns out to be very important; so much so, in fact, that the facility has actually been manipulating these kids for weeks to become more like these types. If you pay attention you find that the Virgin (Dana) had an affair with a college professor, the Fool (Marty) is actually kind of smart, the Whore (Jules) was not really anything like the person she becomes under the influence of the facility, the Athlete (Curt) is not usually an asshole like he is acting, and the Scholar (Holden) is also on the football team with Curt.
Here is where I am getting into partial spoiler territory, so if you have not seen this film you will probably want to skip down below this section.
Not only do the students represent the horror character archetypes, everyone in the film represents someone in the movie-making and movie watching process. The two main characters in the facility, Sitterson and Hadley, represent the writers of the movie because they try to control what events these students will go through. The students are the actors, who sometimes go off on tangents no matter what the writers want. The other people in the facility represent the trades like cinematographer, editor, etc. that are part of movie making. We finally meet the director of the facility (movie director) in a great cameo from Sigourney Weaver at the end of the movie. And those “Elder Gods” who must be appeased by the Americans, Japanese, or Swedes? They are you and me. They are all the horror movie fans that want to see blood, that want to see these horror characters get what’s coming to them. And if the Elder Gods are not appeased (fans are not happy with the movie) then there’s hell to pay – as we see in the film.
Reportedly Drew Goddard was taking questions after a preview screening and the very first thing he was asked was “Will there be a sequel?” He responded, “Did you not just see the end of my movie?” Filmmakers have got to just love the idiots that manage to get passes to these things.
My one complaint with the movie is how the reveal of the facility is handled. Well, “complaint” is too strong a word. Perhaps “I wish it had been different” is a better way to phrase it. They should have kept the entire facility a secret to the viewers until the first camera was found. Show the student looking at it and only then, for the first time, show these men in white shirts and ties watching him on a monitor and realizing that they’ve been discovered. It would have been a killer reveal (pun intended). It would have gotten “holy shit” responses from people in the theaters. Instead we are shown the facility from the beginning and the story proceeds from there with us already knowing they are the ones making things happen.
There is certainly more than enough blood and gore in this movie to satisfy almost every horror fan, so if that is not your cup of tea then you may want to steer clear of this movie. The humor is not the pie in your face kind, but the turning the tables or witty lines kind that you can find in most projects Whedon is involved in. And for horror fans there are numerous times you will probably want to pause the movie to take in the amount of detailed references to many other horror franchises and horror archetypes. If any of these things sound interesting, then I recommend you give this film a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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