A quick note on spoilers: It is almost impossible to write a review of this movie without giving anything away, but let me assure you that I will stick only to what is revealed to audiences in the very first scene of the film and the previews.
Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard and directed by Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods runs with the tagline Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen. If you think you know this story, think again. The ads for the film make much of the fact that this is a horror movie that will pull off a great surprise for audiences. Believe me, it will – not because of a big-twist, final reveal, but because of the very structure of both plot and filming.
The Cabin in the Woods runs on two tracks, each so different as to be jarring, at least at first. Audiences come into the theater knowing about the five friends, off for a weekend in the woods and the “bad things” that subsequently happen. The packing-up-in-the-college-dorms scene, the road-trip scene, and the ominous-harbinger scene, all before arriving about seven minutes later at the titular cabin, provide satisfying and familiar groundwork for half of our characters. This is the track, staring Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers), Kristen Connolly (Guiding Light, As the World Turns) and Fran Kranz (Dollhouse), that follows the tropes of the horror movie world…until it doesn’t any more.
On the other track, one that will remain vague as promised, Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (Let Me In, Six Feet Under) take the scene that opens the film, immediately disrupting audience expectations with suits and ties and an office building. Joined by Whedon-fan-favorite Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) a conversation ensues that will likely give those with previous Whedon experience a good sense of where things are going and leave the rest of the audience a bit mystified. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
Clocking in at 95-minutes, the film wastes no time picking up steam. Both story lines, which are certainly connected, raise the stakes for characters quickly. By far, the most enjoyable track for a typical audience member will be the one that follows the more familiar territory of our young, attractive, plucky college students. Krantz is particularly strong as the perpetually stoned friend who provides not only most of the laughs, but ironically the voice of reason more often than not. Connolly and Hemsworth, along with co-stars Anna Hutchinson and Jesse Williams suit their roles as well, although I could not help but feel like they should have been given more to do (and perhaps they were, in a pre-cut version of the film). All of them certainly take “attractive” to appropriately implausible levels.
The usual thrills and scares are kept fresh as the two story-lines alternate, building suspense by giving the audience information the characters do not have, leaving us to wonder if and when our protagonists will catch up.
The Whitford/Jenkins/Acker portion of the film provides the much-referenced surprise-element, again not through giant and shocking reveals, but through its very presence and premise. Trust me, this will not be a surprise everyone will like. Having worked together in the past, Goddard and Whedon have demonstrated great willingness to think outside the box of entertainment conventions on shows like Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Goddard also wrote several episodes of LOST and the screenplay for Cloverfield, two J.J Abrams endeavors known for a brilliant kind of mystery, walking the edge of acceptable stretching of an audience’s ability to suspend disbelief.
The Cabin in the Woods walks that edge as well. For many, it will surely not work. For myself and those excited enough by all things Whedon to make it to the midnight showing (about 25 of us in my theater, if you’re curious), it worked beautifully, if not perfectly. My guess is that Angel fans will have the easiest time accepting the film for what it is, having been inoculated to a certain absurd sensibility that becomes completely delightful once you get used to it. Cabin is funny, it is entirely different, and it is truly bizarre. If there is a weakness, it is that it is rushed. I almost never want my movies longer, believe me, but I have a feeling Cabin would have been improved by 10 or 15 minutes more. As it stands, it feels thinner than it should be, the unique premise created by the writers and director left under-developed.
Final verdict: The Cabin in the Woods offers a rare schema shift for what to expect from horror films, yet at the same time follows the conventions of the genre to the most extreme end, especially in the new age of “surprise as routine.” It is not easy to pull-off. There are many laughs and some genuine scares, but the true brilliance of the script and directing lies in the fact that any sense the audience has that they have everything figured out is almost always wrong, no matter how far into the film we get. I love that.
This review is also published on Good Girls Gone Geek.