Confession time, dear readers. At the time of this review, we’re less than a week out from the start of Halloween Season (Phase 1), and thus are in the waning days of another Summer of Horror. I still have several titles left on the list that have gone unwatched (some for a number of years in fact), but my soul is chomping at the bit to jump the gun and get started with Halloween proper. As such, when opportunity presented itself last night to watch either a grueling tale of Korean revenge, or a breezy meta-horror-comedy I’ve seen a dozen times… well, here we are.
If you somehow have NOT seen Cabin in the Woods yet, I honestly don’t even know how you ended up on this website, so I’m going to assume familiarity with the movie in this review.
It’s mind-boggling to think about how many great, potential classics are sitting on the proverbial or literal shelf, stuck in distribution hell, never to be seen and appreciated. Because as hard as it is to believe, The Cabin in the Woods almost didn’t see the light of day. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard were in something of a career slump when they hammered out this script in a weekend, and then produced their little meta horror movie on a modest budget, cast with mostly unknown actors. When MGM Studios went bankrupt, it languished in limbo, failing to attract any attention until mega-stardom found Chris Hemsworth and Lionsgate decided to pick it up for a proper release. (Joss Whedon was also announced as the director of the upcoming Avengers movie around the same time, which explains his rather prominent billing in the marketing campaign.) Similarly, Trick R Treat sat on the shelf for two years before its direct to video release, never receiving a proper theatrical run.
I’m certain the question of how to market this movie was also a factor in the lack of confidence in its hit-making potential. When you really think about it, the entire conceit of the film is a spoiler. What do you do when you can’t show any of your best stuff in the trailer? The answer, it seems, is to suck it up and release a vague, unappealing trailer and trust in word of mouth to get box office dollars rolling in. Which is exactly what happened. I remember the trailer trying to sell me what looked like a hard PG-13 Cabin Fever ripoff with some kind of sci-fi angle (they included the shot of a bird smacking into an invisible electric barrier – a really dumb looking shot out of context). But the glowing critical reviews and enthusiastic early audiences assured me where was more going on. They just couldn’t tell me what…
Of course, we now know the whole story – all around the world, organizations exist for the sole purpose of manufacturing various classical horror movie scenarios to throw unwitting victims into as an elaborate form of sacrifice. The blood of “transgressors” is needed to pacify the ancient horrors dwelling deep beneath the Earth and prevent them from annihilating the whole planet. Here in America, our sacrificial ritual takes the form of a “cabin in the woods” play, in which virtually any monster or horror villain you can think of is waiting in the wings to slaughter the teens manipulated into participating.
The strength of this scenario is the way it opens up a totally blank canvas on which to riff on horror movie tropes. Not just of the literal cabin in the woods variety, but of American horror in general. When the shit initially hits the fan, our plucky group of collegiates’ first reaction is to stick together, no matter what. When the architects of the scenario hear this they remotely pipe in a little “silly gas” to move things in a more favorable direction. “No, wait, let’s split up. We can cover more ground that way.” says Hemsworth, in a semi-stupor. Scream may have mocked the illogical behavior of slasher movie victims, but Cabin in the Woods gives us an explanation.
Once most of group of would-be zombie fodder is killed off and the production seems inevitably headed to its necessary, predictable conclusion, the token stoner screws everything up by correctly identifying the artificiality of their predicament and even finding a way “behind the scenes”, setting the stage for the ludicrous buffet of monsters and gore that concludes the film. This all-timer of a third act couldn’t even be glimpsed in the movie’s trailers without completely spoiling it, and it’s certainly what mints this as a modern horror classic to my eyes. Entirely off the top of my head, I remember zombies, masked slashers, a giant snake, a giant bat, killer robots, killer clowns, specters, demented surgeons, and torture demons running amok in an orgy of carnage within the facility beneath the cabin. And of course, we shan’t forget the infamous unicorn and merman.
I’m still torn about that ending though… While I admire the ballsy nihilism of it (and the way it defiantly precludes the possibility of any sequel), it drastically undercuts the heroism of the two surviving characters. In truth, it kind of made me hate both of them. But I also must admit that there may be no better way to end a movie this gleefully anarchic. A more satisfying ending would also have been more conventional by nature, and that would go against the entire ethos of the thing.
It’s odd to think that just 20 years ago, the concept of “meta-horror” was virtually non-existent, with the notable exception of Wes Craven’s back to back New Nightmare and Scream, and now, there’s enough titles to accurately call it a sub-genre of its own. Scream is obviously the 800 pound gorilla of the form, but Cabin in the Woods, I’d say, comes in a strong second place.