I’m still on speaker phone, aren’t I? (spoiler notice)
For a film that’s all about a pretty novel twist on a familiar genre, The Cabin in the Woods sure wears its heart on its sleeve.
From the very start it sets up two tonally differing stories in parallel: one a classic horror setup where a group of devil-may-care youngsters occupy a wooden cottage in a lonely stretch of forest, the other an Office Space-like look into the humdrum lives of two operators in a science facility. It doesn’t take long before you connect the dots and see the unique take on this ‘horror’ film. The teenagers and the whole affair are manipulated and staged to point by the scientists for some nefarious purpose. Considering this is the main mystery, it’s both daring and overeager to explain it so quickly. That’s not to say it doesn’t set up some of the best gags and interesting themes, but it leaves the movie with almost nowhere to go.
I write ‘horror’, because despite the inclusion of various murderous nasties on display and a few ominous moments, this is really more of a comedy or whimsical deconstruction of the genre. Think Army of Darkness, rather than Evil Dead. In fact, the moment the zombies show up the tension deflates. Soon after, we come to understand The Cabin in the Woods is a parody of monster movies. The underground lab is one of many, and each country uses one dedicated to their own cultural ghouls. In Japan, that manifests as a Ringu-like apparition in a classroom. The US, needless to say, exploits a redneck zombie torture family. I wonder what a Dutch version would be like. River creatures and Witte Wieven?
So, where does Cabin go after unveiling its twist? After hounding the unwitting (and for all the talk of personal choice, grossly puppeteered) young victims with the zombie pack (I would’ve preferred anything else from the list of options, or at least a combination. Deadly unicorns? A killer clown? And what the hell did the creepy guy with the ball actually do?), it goes bonkers. The two surviving teens descend into the bunker, discover they were poised to be sacrificed to placate an ancient god, and unleash everything at once on the lab crew. It’s all-out, enthusiastic fun with zounds of horrific creatures. Every pretense of scariness is dropped – it’s a comedy sketch. Think Beetlejuice, rather than Army of Darkness. The best moment here springs from a carefully seeded gag involving a merman.
The end, for all its rampant mayhem, is surprisingly simple and falls a little flat. The film’s cabin-twisting poster promises curve-balls, an expectation-defying, thought-provoking genre-bender. Instead, it finishes with a stoner mentality – let’s just await the end of the world smoking weed, because humanity’s not worth it. Perhaps The Cabin in the Woods would’ve been better served with the supreme bizarreness of John Dies At The End, which is so insane I could barely decide whether I liked it or not. Or maybe something as elegant and disturbing as the finale of Cube, with its many-layered meanings and enticing questions. In contrast to these, the cheeky ‘Ancient ones arise’ ending is about as exciting as 1998 Godzilla’s revelation there was another monster egg hatching.
Cabin has witty dialogue (hello, writer Josh Whedon), lots of flair and characters to empathize with. It plays with notions of stereotype and caricature, but almost twenty years after Scream, that’s a dry-ish well. The office bits are much more interesting than the all-too-familiar teenage scrambles and squabbles, though it’s all enjoyable. When the two worlds collapse, the movie’s both at its best and its worst. It’s the most fun act, but it has the least to say. All it can do is play out its curiously slight founding idea and be done with it. That’s more than enough to make this a compelling and entertaining film, though hardly one for the ages.