My very first movie review (yes, even I take a break from anime occasionally).
Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Then things go strange. And really, that’s all you can say about this without giving anything away. The review below is completely full of major plot points so please feel free to know the movie is awesome and go watch it before reading. I am also going to put a warning on some of the images below containing fairly gore filled images so if it isn’t your thing maybe pass.
One thing about watching a lot of genre fiction is you learn early on that at least 70% of what you are watching is either formulaic, derivative, or just plain dribble. 20% of what remains is genuinely well written genre fiction and the final 10% is varying degrees of incredible depending on your mood and tastes. But, it also means that we get used to certain archetypes and set-ups and The Cabin in the Woods fully embraces this. In point of fact, without the entire body of horror stories sitting behind it, The Cabin in the Woods would fail terribly as a film. It takes your expectations and uses them as the basis for the entire narrative and it does it in a way that doesn’t seem smugly self-aware, even though the film clearly is.
So why did I watch The Cabin in the Woods? There are plenty of other self-aware horror stories out there. Plenty of other gore-fests in isolated locations. Plenty of other conspiracy stories if that is what you are looking for. My honest answer would be Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon is the closest thing to a living legend in terms of the stories he has been a part of crafting and while not everything he touches turns to gold I find a real appeal in both his subject matter and delivery. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Doll House, these stories all take fairly common and basic ideas and yet made them feel fresh, new and interesting while just telling a solid and simple narrative. You can sum up each of the plots of these stories in a single sentence and yet you can’t convey how deep the lore and characters are without spending about a month pulling everything apart. So yes, I am a fan and The Cabin in the Woods certainly reinforced my admiration for Joss Whedon as a story teller (though certainly this is not a one man effort and while there are distinct traces of Whedon in this story it is distinctly different from some of his other works).
Back to reviewing the actual movie rather than the people who worked on the movie. From the opening scenes we have a parallel narrative being established. On the one side we have the corporate or government workers who are worried about those upstairs and a project that literally has to be successful. These characters are very human in that they have friendships and history with one another that comes across clearly even while they are the faceless corporation and government workers who carry out whatever jobs they need to because it is their job. The building they work in is cold and sterile and this setting kind of works to distance the viewer. It actually reminded me a lot of the offices in Burn After Reading (and the reuse of an actor from that film just kind of reinforced that impression).
The other side of the coin are the college students. Two girls and three guys each fitting the standard archetype of characters in horror movies who are going to visit one of the guy’s cousins cabin in the woods. They don’t really know much about it and don’t seem to care because they are planning on a fun weekend. Our introduction to these characters is as cliché as it comes but we already know from the conversations in the other storyline that there is more going on which makes us pay more attention and we start picking up small details early on that are going to become very important to the story.
And that is where The Cabin in the Woods shines. It truly takes on the rule of Chekov’s Gun. There is nothing in this story that is introduced without purpose. The more assertive girl recently dyed her hair and this is commented on (in a perfectly natural way) when she meets with her friend before they meet the guys. The fact that this makes her the ‘blonde’ of the group plays on a cliché of horror movies and that would be enough to make it work but then we have the parallel story. Yep, that project they are all working on is to get these guys to the cabin (though why is still not revealed but heavily implied). We learn later that there’s been a lot of prep work for this trip and that included doctoring the dye used on the girl’s hair and that blonde die is literally making her act dumb (or at least not think clearly through her actions). Why would they do that? Well, other than embracing another horror cliche there’s actually a really good reason.
Seriously stop now if you don’t like spoilers.
Turns out these guys have been selected to be sacrificed and you know, old gods/demons/whatevers really do have preferences. The whore or the modern dumb blonde cliché is about as typical as they come in terms of preferences for sacrifices in old legends. But what if the reason we see so many of these types of characters in horror movies is because these sacrifices are literal rather than legendary and our entire horror genre is built on an actual fear of a reality that is being orchestrated by our government?
So it all ties back in together. We embrace the cliché of horror because that stereotype is actually build on a reality that this movie is establishing as the basis of its entire plot. It makes you rethink every horror movie you have ever seen in the context of what if we only write these stories because we fear they are true.
Back to Chekov’s Gun the van they drive has a motorbike attached to the back which we get many lingering shots of as they drive toward the cabin. Okay, they are young and there are three guys so it makes sense. Except no one mentions it or even seems particularly like they are even aware of it. Then the van goes through a tunnel and we see that the road curves back on itself. Without going through the tunnel there’s a gap between the two roads with a steep drop. Okay, starting to put things together. And then an eagle that has been following the van hits an invisible force field that runs through that gap and the eagle explodes. Right… I see where this is going. Some people would argue that such obvious foreshadowing is a flaw but I really find it enhances this kind of viewing. You know what is coming and all that is left is how they manage to orchestrate the situation and deliver. So by the time one of the students attempts to go for help by jumping the gap on the motor bike you are on the edge of your seat and just waiting for the punch line and you are rewarded in truly spectacular fashion. The reaction of the other two characters is pretty priceless as well.
We also get glimpses of the results of other countries attempts to orchestrate a sacrifice. The Japan one is pretty funny even while it is truly heart wrenching to think of young girls in that kind of situation. The resolution of that will make you laugh out loud even though by the time we get to the end of the film it turns out that it won’t make any difference.
The passive way that the workers view the plight of the friends (and in point of fact orchestrate worst case scenarios for the friends) is disturbing. You wonder how humans can become so detached and carry out their duties in such a manner when they can see the results on the screen right in front of them. But they are detached, when they aren’t placing bets and celebrating their success at setting up a violent death. And while the motives of those who work in this corporation are clear by the end you still can’t help but wonder about the morality of taking on such a job or how you would feel if you were the one given such a responsibility. Not to mention, it is hard to know how you feel about the absolute massacre of workers at the end. Part of you wants to rejoice because of what they did to the students and part of you just feels horrible that you feel good about them getting killed without remorse.
Before I wrap this up (because this is getting long) I do want to address the end of the movie. Amazing and twisted. Amazingly awesome and twisted. It’s fantastic. This is the perfect mix of satire on human condition, embracing horror stereotypes, and modern corporate culture, with a whole lot of supernatural violence overlaying the entire thing and a bit of comedy. Okay, it is a gore fest and visually there are some real cringe worthy moments, but it also has a lot to say while sitting back and happy just to be horror film. So you can watch and enjoy without thinking about anything because it is a survival horror. Or you can question everything and pull all the ideas apart and still end up with something pretty fantastic.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I kind of loved this film. It is exactly to my tastes in terms of subject matter, characterisation, and delivery. While part of me really wished the group had chosen something else in the basement (I love how we get hints about how different the story could have gone) going with the cliché further reinforces the overall narrative structure and it works. Plus, at least they don’t have to spend half the movie explaining the rules about the zombies. There’s an assumption that the audience already know the story because we’ve seen that element before).
If you love any kind of horror, you have to check out this movie. If you’ve watched it, I’d love to know your thoughts.