Representing maybe the first real step in the reflexive evolution of the horror film since Scream, Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods wades into the depths of voyeurism and pleasure that have become embedded into the genre over nearly the last half-century. It ingeniously weaves a heightened sense of self-awareness into a story that steers clear of parody despite deploying an orgy of genre tropes. Much of this can be attributed to how Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon have structured the film. At the outset we learn of an apparent experiment wherein two men—played with relish by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford—sit in front of screens in a control room and manipulate the fates of five young college students who are off to spend a weekend in a creaking cabin in the middle of nowhere. If the college student scenario sounds derivative, that’s because it is. Each character is walking horror cliché: the athletic jock (Chris Hemsworth), the bookish nerd (Jesse Williams), the innocent virgin (Kristen Connolly), the promiscuous blonde (Anna Hutchinson), and the know-it-all stoner (Frank Kranz). It should then be no surprise that the secluded settings and familiar plot turns that ensue invoke the likes of The Evil Dead, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th, and innumerable others.
The overt contrast between the increasingly violent situation at the cabin and the nonchalance of the folks watching/enacting it becomes the film’s major sticking point, and Goddard and Whedon make it work by pouring on the irony. They want to scare you and make you laugh, and then make you wonder why you’re scared and laughing. The eventual explanation for the motivations of the folks in the control room leaves something to be desired, but the resolution seems practically irrelevant and also part of the fun. Moreover, once it enters its third act, The Cabin in the Woods is firmly within the realm of absurdity, carried on by its own inventiveness long after the initial intrigue of the story wears off.
Perhaps the most unique element of all of this is how the film maintains a balance of disparate sensibilities. It actively conflates the serious and the non-serious, inviting a pensive engagement before revealing its ultimate simplicity. (In fact, some of the funniest moments come from deeply intense moments that are interrupted with obviously less important matters.) This playful approach yields an inspired if also problematic result. It’s not a terribly deep experiment and nor is it a reinvention of horror, but it’s a smart take on the ostensibly inherent fixations on death and violence that have long entrenched the genre. And in addition to its modest attempt to reconfigure the elements of horror cinema, The Cabin in the Woods is every bit an homage to their existence. (Drew Goddard, 2012) **½