Sick to death of horror movies where young people go somewhere scary and get dismembered? How about horror movies that comment on and mock their own overworn conventions? How about 3-D?

Turns out, the makers of this film were sick of 3-D, too, and the desire of the studio for a 3-D release and the resulting kerfuffle delayed its release. However, the film manages to turn the other two overused premises into the most original and effective horror movie / comedy / pop social commentary film of the year.

Read our review of Joss Whedon’s other 2012 hit movie (also featuring Chris “Thor” Hemsworth), written with and directed by Chris Goddard (of Lost and Cloverfield fame).

Beware, of course, the Spoiler Tags…

Title: The Cabin in the Woods

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Drew Goddard

Written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon.

Kristen Connolly as Dana
Chris Hemsworth as Curt
Anna Hutchison as Jules
Fran Kranz as Marty
Jesse Williams as Holden
Richard Jenkins as Sitterson
Bradley Whitford as Hadley
Brian White as Truman
Amy Acker as Lin
Tim De Zarn as Obligatory Creepy Old Man
Tom Lenk as Ronald the Intern
Dan Payne as Mathew Buckner
Jodelle Ferland as Patience Buckner
Dan Shea as Father Buckner
Maya Massar as Mother Buckner
Matt Drake as Judah Buckner
Sigourney Weaver as Special Guest Appearance

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.

Premise:

Five young people head out to spend a weekend in a mysterious old cabin in the woods. From the start, we know something more is going on; we just don’t know how far this particular rabbit hole goes.

If you’re the sort of person who comes to a site like this one, you likely have read and watched a lot of SF and horror, and a strong chance exists you’ll figure out where this is going before it gets there. They play the conjurer’s game of letting you in on one secret early, in the hopes that you won’t see the real trick coming. I did, a little ways in. YMMV, and further commentary appears at the conclusion.

High Points:

Major: Horror movies have pointed accusing fingers at their audience before, but never in such a memorable fashion. The film’s labyrinthine backstory and complicated games provide thoughtful, hilarious, and frightening commentary on horror movies, popular culture, and human nature. Not bad for a pre-summer-release spookshow.

Minor: I laughed at the conclusion to the Japanese schoolgirls bit, and the payoff to the merman riff, while expected, works.

Low Points:

I was going to complain about the final shot—not its intent, but the comically prosaic choice. Instead, however, I’m going to complain about the trailers:

1. The tongue-in-cheek reinvention of Dark Shadows might work, or it might just be stupid—but, either way, do they have to shove the entire film into the trailer?

2. Pirrahna 3DD: Obviously a parodic reinvention of the franchise, poking fun at both the summer blockbuster and the summer horror movie. The trailer leads me to believe, alas, it will be really bad parodic reinvention, and this summer’s Snakes on a Plane.

3. Safe, however, presents itself as a serious film, but, judging from the trailer. I doubt I’ll be able to watch it as anything but parody of the action/thriller genre.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 As in Buffy, we have worn-as-a-zombie’s-pants media clichés reinvented in the service of something strangely fresh and original. I couldn’t help but think, however, of earlier, more restrained metahorrors (Scream, most obviously)—and of James Shelby Downard’s conspiracy theories, in which he claims the Illuminati killed John F. Kennedy as part of a mystic ritual.

Of course, the Old Ones Ex Machina has become a somewhat expected explanation of horror and conspiracy literature. Nevertheless, I hold to my score.

Effects: 5/6 The effects remain, for most of the film, excellent and convincing. Some of the effects in the finale look too much like CGI. I realize that one could offer an explanation for why they look like CGI, given the premise, but the observation remains.

Acting: 5/6 The cast has a great deal of fun with a frequently witty script. As the Director says to Dana, “We work with what we have.”

Story: 5/6 Both Goddard and Whedon have made a name for their ability to combine the fantastic and the everyday, and Cabin in the Woods, they reach new heights. In short, we have Buffy at its best, and Lost with a solution that makes sense– or, enough sense that I was willing to accept the absurdities of that solution.

Production: 6/6

Emotional Response: 5/6 The film has more than its share of scares and laughs. Some might find the climax ridiculously overdone, but I won’t argue with something that was so much fun to watch.

Overall: 6/6. The film contains more Eggs than a Winter Haven Easter hunt, from the retro-grindhouse main title to…. Just watch the climax yourself.

Perhaps it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. It’s clever enough.

In total, The Cabin in the Woods receives 35/42.

Reflections on Conspiracy Theory

While Goddard and Whedon and company clearly had horror and pop culture in their sights, the film also demonstrates very nicely how the hardcore conspiracy theorist thinks, in a manner that applies quite well to, say, both the largely forgotten Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 1990s and the current Illuminati/Inside Job/Et Cetera obsession. You start with a plausible bit of conspiracy, or at least, some troubling reports and anomalies. When the evidence doesn’t bear out your conspiracy, you make it bigger. Evidence is being covered up! By tens of thousands of people! At the highest level! For generations! Using hitherto unknown science! For reasons that make no sense!

Pretty soon, you have to turn to magic or aliens or comic-book science to keep the conspiracy plausible. So what started as reports of creepy rituals in suburban basements and daycares becomes a global conspiracy involving every major government and run with the power of Satan Himself. What started as questions about 9-11 or a failure to understand NASA technology leads to the Illuminati (Reptilian aliens optional) and agencies powerful enough to run the entire world– but who keep their existence secret.

Goddard and Whedon understand this. The only explanation for the conspiracy that powers this film is the one they finally have to offer.

And I enjoyed the ride that took us there.