In the first scene of The Cabin in the Woods, the audience is shown something completely unfamiliar to the elements of standard horror fare in a couple of loser desk jockeys from a well-funded and shadowy organization shooting the breeze around a water cooler. That a horror film ostensibly focused on its eponymous elements would start this way creates the immediate perception that the gears have been changed and what we are about to see is an original work that seeks to turn the tables on what horror films have become. Would that it were so.
Much like contemporary horror filmmakers, the aforementioned suits of The Cabin in the Woods actually control a massive syndicate of various malicious and supernatural powers designed to prey upon young people who put themselves at risk by conjuring ghosts and the undead. The ultimate goal? Well, you’ll have to watch it to see what they’re up to, but suffice it to say that they want all of their victims to die, and they’re ready to take bets on which creatures will ultimately do them in. Like so many horror buffs fueled by the desire to see some on-screen deaths, the audience is invited to root against the victims and by extension the puppet masters themselves. When our protagonists hole up in an old cabin laden with supernatural lore, the bait is set for a good time to be had by all.
While The Cabin in the Woods gains some traction as a straight-faced send-up of horror films, its reach ultimately exceeds its grasp; it’s too high-budget to find the cultural cache of self-aware horror portrayed in Cabin Fever (can you believe that was ten years ago?), nowhere near as on-the-nose as the genre lynchpin Shaun of the Dead, and too derivative to ascend its alleged genre smashing.
So it turns out the horror afflicting the main characters is controlled by an exterior entity with questionable morals? Watch the Saw franchise, or Cube. The characters react to given situations in predictable ways and we have a good idea of who’s going to die next? Scream had that covered almost 20 years ago. A remote cabin in the woods leads to a fight for survival against unimaginable consequences? Cabin Fever is a good example, but The Evil Dead is the best one. It’s funnier and scarier too. Putting the tormentors in an office setting and having them control the conditions of the horror minutely is inspired innovation, but other than that, the fact that the script was churned out in three days shows throughout. True to form, selecting zombies as the primary antagonists, whether there is a distinction made between ‘zombies’ and ‘redneck zombie torture family’, seems calculated to capitalize on the recent uptick of undead movies, books, and shows.
Unfortunately, critiquing a movie like The Cabin in the Woods is not that simple. With the involvement of Joss Whedon (agent of the inimitable Avengers and, lest we forget, Alien: Resurrection) comes an annoyingly insistent group of devoted fans who scour the internet for such dissections with a reverberating chorus of “you’re missing the point!” True, by putting the elements of successful horror in the foreground, the filmmakers ape the position that their cheeky self-awareness puts them on an intellectual high ground, but the audiences that truly delve into horror have known exactly why they dig scary movies, especially cheesy ones, for at least thirty years. These people don’t need a movie made specifically to apprise them of their opinions, especially when the makers slap the elements of other horror films together and rely on an original framing device to do the work for them.
Moreover, most of The Cabin in the Woods movie isn’t particularly scary. Or funny. As mentioned previously, the character archetypes are so well-worn that a parody is unnecessary because contemporary slasher films, and indeed slasher films as far back as the ‘80s and ‘90s, already acknowledge their doomed protagonists and make no effort to disguise their fate, so imposing a corporation of professional persecutors is self-reflexive in an uninteresting, unnecessary capacity; seeing the people that pull the strings lends the grab-bag of horror film monsters positively no gravitas, and watching the office boys place bets and toast the inevitably gory deaths brings to bear shades of the Scream franchise, which stopped being entertaining at the second installment precisely because the gimmick got old.
There’s no denying that The Cabin in the Woods features decent writing, rock-solid pacing, an inspired cameo, and enough cookie-cutter shocks to keep genre fans entertained, but it’s hard to not be left wanting. The hints of self-awareness that ultimately dominate the film save it from the forgettable status to which it may have otherwise been doomed, but in a few years, and after a surefire influx of knock-offs, fans may realize they’ve been duped into liking an otherwise ho-hum film.
Fortunately, those burning to own a copy of The Cabin in the Woods will find themselves with decidedly cheap options; both the DVD and the Blu-ray are available on Amazon for less than $8, an amount low enough even for die-hard detractors to buy one or both so as to entertain themselves with regular critical analysis.