I’m starting a new series here, revisiting movies that I’ve given 3 ½-star ratings to in the past. See the link above this post for a complete explanation of the idea and, in the future, an index of movies discussed.
I caught up with this film on December 10, 2012, with a Redbox rental, having decided I wanted to see it before the end of the year so I could consider it for my top 10 list. The Cabin in the Woods was a much-hyped and long anticipated project among the film critic community, particularly the Onion’s A.V. Club, my number-one source for movie news and reviews at the time. The word was that this film deconstructed horror movie tropes in highly inventive and amusing ways. Producer and co-writer Joss Whedon was the man of the hour in Hollywood, having steered The Avengers to world domination that same year. So I gave it a try and liked what I saw, but I didn’t completely fall for the movie. It didn’t seem quite as inventive or subversive as it should have been. One-and-a-half years later, I have now seen Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, the most obvious inspiration for Cabin. Would this deepen my appreciation for what Cabin is up to, or would the newer film suffer from the comparison?
Here’s the setup: five teens take a road trip out to a remote cabin to spend the weekend. Blithely enjoying themselves, they don’t realize until it’s too late that they’re trespassing on cursed ground. They awaken an evil force that proceeds to slaughter them one by one. So far, this plot is identical to that of The Evil Dead, with the antagonist taking the form of a hybrid of zombies and the sadistic rednecks of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But there’s one significant twist. When the teens drive across a tunnel on the road to the cabin, they enter a simulacrum. Everything that happens from that point is manipulated by mysterious engineers watching it all on video monitors. We later find out that the horror movie scenario unfolding around the cabin is an elaborate means of producing a blood sacrifice to appease vengeful gods.
The film derives its parodic insight from these engineers and their simulacrum. There are hints of the voyeurism of horror movie fans, but mostly the concept allows for gentle mockery of clichés. Through the influence of chemicals and a little bit of theater, the engineers reduce these five characters to the stereotypes common to slasher/splatter films, stereotypes that behave predictably when they encounter a horrifying threat. It’s a nice idea in theory, but it has a number of problems. For starters, I actually like these characters in their first scene. They seem generally smart and interesting. This makes it less fun to watch them circle the drain for the rest of the movie. Also, while this movie possesses the “critic-proof” quality of responding to questions of logic with “That’s the point,” it can be hard to see a silly plot twist as a parody of a silly plot twist. For example, when the group’s de facto leader suggests they stick together, the engineers spray some pheromone into the room that makes him change his mind and suggest they split up. Yes, of course horror movies often have characters split up for no good reason, but this is a pretty uninteresting way of pointing that out. Later, a character we thought was dead turns out to be alive. How this got past the engineers, who have been watching all five of these people carefully, I can’t say. Finally, the idea that the virgin will be the only survivor is a cliché that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream already explored sixteen years earlier. That movie is still the gold standard for a horror parody that manages to be scary and funny all at once.
Despite plot holes and such, The Cabin in the Woods is consistently entertaining, but its humor and its gruesome violence never quite mesh. The comedy is mostly confined to the first half of the film, and during the CGI eruption of the finale, the audience doesn’t really have time for any reaction other than saucer-eyed awe. And frankly, even all that gory funhouse stuff is a little underwhelming to me. Its most effective qualities are aural rather than visual — wet, squishy, cracking sounds, not to mention the drill. Sound is traditionally very important to horror — what is a good jump scare without a stinger on the soundtrack? But the best horror films are also visually staggering. There’s nothing in Cabin to compare to the hurtling camera of The Evil Dead or the visceral editing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And I think the filmmakers are just as bored with zombies as the engineers evidently are. Which is a shame.
The Cabin in the Woods will keep its 3 ½-star rating. Having seen it twice, I know I’d be perfectly happy to see it again. There are just enough things that irk me about it to keep it off my favorites list, but they aren’t significant enough to outweigh my general enjoyment of the film. Cabin is definitely in the top half of all the movies to which I’ve given this rating. I like it a good deal more than another film from the same year that also involves teenagers getting slaughtered for the amusement of people watching them on video screens. To this day I’ve only seen The Hunger Games once, and I might not see it again. But I gave that movie 3 ½ stars as well. Herein lies the inscrutability of my ratings system, something I think I can learn a lot from exploring in the future.