Unbelievably, we are already in the home stretch of 2012, a majority of films have already come out, and the whittling down process of making a year-end, best films list has begun. All things considered, it’s been a decent year at the movies, and with the slate of films still unreleased it could conceivably push up to, and hopefully past, the great standard. What has made this year unique—at least for me—is that the two best films of the year were released in the early part of it, the time that is primarily known as a dumping ground for films that studios don’t know how to handle (The Grey), or, for the most part, a cinematic abomination (One for the Money). As you might well have guessed, in my somewhat humble estimation, Cabin in the Woods is, indeed, one of these films I speak of, as it successfully presents itself as THE smart horror film of the year and also the most exhilarating ride I’ve gone on at the cinema all year. I held off in posting on it upon my first viewing for two reasons:
- It’s a perfect movie to start off my series of posts on the horror/suspense genre and to kick off our celebration of the month of October and Halloween. Duh.
- I rarely respond to a film in a 100% positive nature. Therefore, I needed to view it a couple of more times (3 watches and counting) before issuing a declarative statement like the following:
AS OF NOW, CABIN IN THE WOODS IS THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR.
There. I said it. Commence stone throwing now, if you wish.
What is even more unbelievable is that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s meta horror/comedy took an eternity to see the light of day as MGM shelved the movie—despite a positive reception at a test screening—in the hopes of needlessly converting it into a movie sporting the THIRD DIMENSION, a move that the creative team rightly disagreed with. Then there was a pesky regime shakeup and the projects belonging to the old suits got shelved in favor for the projects of the new suits. Idiots. The end result was an excellent movie languishing in MGM’s basement until they finally saw fit to hand off the rights for distribution to Lionsgate. All we horror fans could do was wait; wait and hope that the word leaked onto the Internet about that mythical screening was true, that Goddard and Whedon had indeed crafted an intelligent horror flick, one that was superior to 99% of all the other recent genre offerings, and that they had somehow managed to enliven the horror film by introducing a few new creative twists to a type of photoplay that often gets weighed down by the inertia of a cookie-cutter thought process.
First and foremost, Cabin in the Woods is an insanely entertaining movie that enjoys playing with the audience’s collective memory of horror movie troupes, which essentially demands that you see it in a packed movie house (if you didn’t get the opportunity, cue the sad trombone noise in your head now), or, as your second-best option, with as many like-minded friends as possible, with a good sound system, some suds, and a rather large TV, the monolith of our times. Simply put, it is lively, it is thrilling, and it is intelligent. Sadly, its nigh impossible to talk about without giving away its twists, turns, and secrets, as the film starts to dole those out from the opening minutes, creating an elegant, slow drip of information, giving up its pleasures to the audience little by little.
The setup for Cabin couldn’t be more elementary. Five well-known college-kid types meet up, jump into a motorhome, and head off together for a weekend vacation in the remotely located structure that gives the film its namesake. Along for the ride are Dana, the sensitive one; her sexed-up friend Jules; her athletic, handsome boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth); the equally handsome but somewhat scholarly Holden; and everyone’s favorite character, Marty, the stoner who may not be as stupid or burnt out as he appears. With their liquor and enormous bong in tow, the vacationers set out, survive an unsettling (aren’t they always?) encounter with a redneck local, and then begin to explore their destination and all its unsettling, unusual décor, like a sadistic painting that hides an ominous 2-way mirror. Unfettered by their findings, they decide to play a round of Truth or Dare, which ultimately leads them to a basement full of worrisome objects, one of which happens to be the diary of Patience Buckner, the first resident of the cabin, whose entire family was brutally murdered by her deranged, pioneer father. By reading the words contained in the dust-covered diary, the reanimated corpses of the Buckner clan spring forth from the ground in a rather disconcerting, blood-thirsty mood, once again proving that nothing good ever comes from reading a young girl’s innermost thoughts out loud to your friends on the sly.
This is story B. Story A, which is moving along at the same time as the one above, follows Steve (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Bradley Whitford), two guys who appear to be starting in on a fairly innocuous workday at some sort of military base or defense command center. You know, short-sleeve dress shirts and name badges, boilerplate stuff like that. These two gentlemen are boring and mundane, just like the conversations they partake in while getting their morning coffee, and we have no idea how they connect to the young, carefree, and sexed-up college students in story B. And therein lies the fun of the piece.
What Whedon and Goddard have done with Cabin in the Woods is create a world in which all the illogical and archetypal behaviors and characters inherent in offerings from the horror genre are framed in a light that begins to make real-world sense. There is always a reason for how things play out, and it’s not just because these people are obtuse. For me, this is the greatest pleasure in a film full of them, how it takes great joy in running down the checklist of horror clichés, subverting each one, much like Scream did 16 years ago but with the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, elbow to the solar plexus nature of Craven and Williamson’s work surgically removed, instead opting for a tone that is less self-conscious. If this is all the film had on its mind to do, it would still be fun, but the hard left turn it takes in the third act helps the movie go from good to utterly fantastic and provides at least 3 moments that I still can’t believe I witnessed projected onto a movie screen.
Some have argued that the ending is rather nihilistic, which is true. While I can’t claim to be the most avid of Whedon followers, I do know enough about his work to say that the ending isn’t one that seems out of place, and I would argue that in the work of his I have viewed, he’s certainly laid the groundwork for an ending of this nature. Jenkins and Whitford are outstanding (and hilarious) as they embody characters that seem to be avatars for the creative duo. They know the audience wants heaping doses of carnage in their cinematic diet—even if they don’t—and they’re here to give it to them. The fact that their film does all this with a wicked sense of humor, remain endlessly inventive while paying homage to the films that inspired it, and succeeding in coming up with a shot that somehow managed to act as a summation of all the things that brought me fits of terror at night when I was a child, is a rather impressive feat indeed, one that makes me happy on a truly pure level.