Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Movie – The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods is an interesting take on the generic American horror movie.  On the one hand it is given the usual kind of skewed version of a story you can expect from writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard.  On the other hand, the film and the characters within it function as parallels to the entire movie industry, from the people who make the movies to those that watch them.  There are a number of references to other movies for the true horror fans, as well as some familiar faces for the Whedonites.  And to think, this film sat on the shelf for almost three years before it got released.

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 Japan where other culturally specific horror scenarios are playing out.  Japan shows a bunch of schoolgirls being terrorized by a spirit, while Sweden 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.

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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  1. Well, it was only a matter of time before you found another in this series I hadn't seen.

    What's next? Re-Animator (he asks with fingers crossed)?

    1. Sorry to disappoint: I've never seen Re-Animator. I've got four more to go, although two are kind of iffy and I may change my mind. The two others I'm sure you've already seen since one is from the 80s and the other is from the 1,001 Movies list.

      The two you haven't seen so far are relatively recent ones that came out in the midst of your 1,001 Movies quest. I really think you'll like both of them.

  2. Good review Chip. I didn't love this movie like every person on the face of the planet, but I still enjoyed what I saw and the way everybody seemed to be having a ball with the material, behind and in front of the camera.

    1. I didn't like it as much as many others, either, but that was because of the amount of gore that was in it. As I mentioned in my parent post, I'm not that big a horror fan and some of that is due to the high levels of gore that some of them churn out. Thanks.

  3. This one was a negative surprise for me. With all the hype it got I was seriously let down. I think from a promising beginning it lost focus and ended somewhere between silly and gory, well actually both. Reading your spoiler part I see that there may be a point to it all after all, but I did not get it while I saw it. When it finished my wife and I just looked at each other and simultanously said: Man, that was stupid.
    I guess horror is not really my thing.

    1. From discussions after some of your reviews I think you and I are pretty similar in that if we get too overhyped for a film we end up being disappointed.

      In the case of this film I was interested in seeing it because of Joss Whedon's involvement. Normally this would make me very hyped up, but the fact that it was a horror movie cancelled all of that out (since I'm not that big a fan of the genre.) The result is that I went into this movie with no real expectations and ending up liking it.

  4. I've been intrigued with this film for a while. I'll have to catch up and come back with my thoughts about it.

  5. So, now that I've seen the film...

    As a horror fan I can tell you that it's films like this one that make me a horror fan, because it works on multiple levels. First, it's a pretty good horror film. There's a decent amount of gore (although less than you think--a lot of it is implied or happens off-screen). The exception is the ending bloodbath, which is pretty great for a horror geek.

    The second is that it works so well on a meta level. This is a horror film about horror films. It manages to essentially become an umbrella for other horror movies, implying that the facility may have been involved in those as well. That's great.

    It's also very, very smart in how it plays with expectation and with the genre.

    I disagree with you on the reveal of the facility. I think it works--if they wait too long to reveal it, this is nothing more than Evil Dead. A later reveal may well work better for the non-genre viewer. For the horror fan, though, if we don't see that we're getting something very different off the top, the film may lose us before it gets to where it's going.

    1. I agree that waiting on the reveal might have cost some viewers, but it would have been a great gift for those that stuck with it. My desire for that one change is based on a number of "holy shit!" moments in Whedon's TV shows that were all caused by sudden reveals that everything we thought we knew had only been part of the story.

      Your description of what makes this film great - the smartness and meta-ness - is classic Whedon. That's why I loved his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show. They did all the classic horror archetypes from not just vampires and werewolves, but to Frankenstein's monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon - but always with a skewed angle to them. You could simultaneously recognize the classic character, but at the same time get a whole new spin on it. Honestly, remove the gore and brief nudity and this film would play a lot like an extra-long episode of Buffy.