Horror films are a dime a dozen, produced for less and less money, and incite even fewer chills and thrills due to overused and abused cliches. When filmmakers have a grasp of post-modernism and twenty years of experience, it can make for a refreshing revisioning of the genre. Written and produced by master Generation X talents, Drew Godardd and Joss Whedon, Cabin in the Woods is a relentless, self-reflexive horror film that is able to twist the common tropes of the genre successfully.
Richard (Bradley Whitford) and Steve (Richard Jenkins) are scenarists who control an expansive, secret underground control room and briefly discuss their work for the night ahead. Dana (Kristen Connolly), the reluctant virgin; Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athletic jock who is dating the promiscuous Julie (Anna Hutchison); Marty (Fran Kranz), a pothead conspiracy theorist; and the scholarly Holden (Jesse Williams) pile into an RV to enjoy the weekend at a cabin deep in the woods. After Richard and Steven pull a few strings, the group ultimately decides their fate.
Cabin in the Woods specifically reveals the cliches and tropes of horror films in order to set-up an unconventional revisioning of the horror genre. The story is not at all ashamed to have the characters look for Tillerman Road. A tillerman is a person who controls or steers large vessel or vehicle. The group will drive directly into the trap set by the tillermen below who stand by to control their fate. Without revealing these elements, the film would not be able to pull off the impressive third act. The film utilizes the typical set-up and characters for a horror film. Taking cues from Evil Dead, Rubber, and The Truman Show, the film places diverse personalities into a lone cabin in the woods; of course something would go wrong. However, a large organization is not only controlling certain aspects, but they are commenting on the situation; a stand-in for the talkative audience.
The film’s first half is almost like an ad lib. Simply fill in the blanks with a bank of common horror film elements and watch the film unfold. This large organization is a representation of reality programming, a concept not lost on Whitford and Jenkins’ characters. Reality television is an obvious context to the film as there is interference by producers who pull a strings or violently shake a snow globe and watch everything fall. Only a few essential components are controlled and the rest is simply watching the group think they have control over their destinies. The Darwinian, existential, and voyeuristic concepts of the film are all planted and executed well, even if they are revealed specifically by the filmmakers to the audience.
Director Drew Godardd and Joss Whedon have teamed-up for another successful collaboration that fuses their past works together from both television and film. Elements from Lost, Buffy, Firefly, etc, are all present in Cabin in the Woods. Subverting common tropes and inserting mythological and science fiction elements in the film makes for a wonderful cocktail of light-hearted humor and horror. However, the film never induces any real audible laughter or spooks, but it does beg for attention from beginning to end. Also, lovely surprise cameo a lá Zombieland provides a sweet cherry on top of this clever and delicious cake.
Once the film gets itself into motion with the second act, it becomes a relentless adventure that is satisfying for both horror junkies, casual spectators, and any knowledgeable cinephile. Godardd’s feature film debut is stellar, and the film questions authorship, voyeurism, and the place of horror films in contemporary American filmmaking. Essentially, Godardd and Wheldon have just tossed the ball back onto the court for the next attempt to provide a revisionist horror release.