Five friends head off for a weekend at a secluded cabin in the woods. As they settle in for the night, the door to the cellar mysteriously swings open. Deciding to investigate, the group head down where they find a startling array of old artefacts, ornaments and antiques. But after one of them reads out a passage from a journal, they awaken a family of undead killers who used to live in the cabin. But they are the least of the problems that the group will encounter over the course of the night.
To go into any other detail regarding the plot as this stage would be to defeat the object of watching The Cabin in the Woods, quite simply one of the most unique and genre-bending horror films of recent memory. Believe the hype because if you’re a genre fan, you’re going to love this film. Written and produced by Josh Wheldon, the fan boy favourite behind the likes of cult TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and, more recently, the big budget blockbuster The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods continues his fandom-pandering, genre-deprecating sense of humour with a film that can be appreciated on so many different levels. At its core, we have a film that has two simultaneous stories running along side-by-side and it’s up to you to try and piece together the links (before the film does it for you in the final third). But there’s so much more going on underneath.
I don’t think I’ve ever found a review as hard to write as this one. The Cabin in the Woods is best viewed without any faintest hint of what happens in it and, since the bulk of the enjoyable experience is to be constantly screaming “what the hell is going?” at the screen when things take an unexpected turn between the two concurrent stories, then it’s best if you don’t know anything. No spoilers. No clues. Nothing. Even the trailer gives away too much in my opinion. So trying to talk about a film without revealing anything or even given faint hints is really hard and I’m going to purposely avoid talking about one of the stories for that matter as I feel it would give too much away.
The Cabin in the Woods is a clever film, or at least thinks it is for the most part, which will surprise you, shock you and appease the horror nerd inside of you. For genre-busting meta-horror films, I’d say this was up there with Scream for its attempts to break through the fourth wall, only this works a lot better than Craven’s film in many aspects. Though by the sheer insanity that fills up this film’s final third, I can’t imagine wave of copy cat films coming hot on its heels like the post-modern slasher craze which followed Craven’s classic. Co-writer Drew Goddard seems to be as knowledgeable as Wheldon when it comes to horror and together the two craft a film which is high on clichés and even higher on manipulating and breaking them. It requires audience awareness of such clichés in order to succeed and even then, spells some of them out in plain English so that non-genre fans could ‘get’ the film.
But this isn’t done at the expense of the integrity of the film, far from it. This is a film which unleashes the clichés for the viewer, playing upon audience expectations of them in a way which hasn’t been done before but at the same time continuing to put the characters in serious jeopardy. It may be a game for the audience but it’s certainly not a game for the characters who have to try and survive this nightmare ordeal. With one of the major twists of the film, the audience suddenly realise they have become complicit in something that only the five characters are unaware of.
At first, The Cabin in the Woods smacks of been there, done that, got the t-shirt – a bunch of good-looking, stereotypical twentysomethings head off to a remote location for some shenanigans and hanky panky, bumping into the local whackjob on the way who warns them against going. Then of course, his predictions of doom come true and they find something that they shouldn’t really be messing with. The first third of the film is very reminiscent of The Evil Dead film with its whole ‘cabin in the woods, reading a supernatural verse and being trapped with the confines of the valley’ structure. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s just a self-aware re-tread. To say anything else on that matter would be to do you a disservice if you watch it.
Taken on its own merits without the genre in-jokes and twists and turns, the film works reasonably well as an effective horror film. There are some unexpected moments of terror, the film has a decent creepy atmosphere (though there are specific reasons for that!) and there is enough gore to keep fans happy. Some of the make-up effects are brilliantly done, including the zombie Buckner family who come alive to terrorise the teenagers. The teenage characters appear to fall into stereotype at the start but over the course of the film, they develop into fully fledged characters who defy any real stereotyping. Again, to divulge more would be to ruin the enjoyable of the film.
So there you have it – a review which doesn’t say too much about the film, only that you should expect plenty of twists, turns, unexpected happenings, predictable outcomes. Everything you can think will happen, will happen. And everything you think will happen, won’t happen. It sounds confusing but sit down, watch it and let it all pan out. It will make sense then.
The Cabin in the Woods is definitely a one-watch only deal as once you ‘get it’ then you’ll find little to go back over, save for perhaps spotting all of the genre references. But your first run-through with it will provide you with some of the most entertaining horror moments that cinema has had to offer for a long time. Ingenious at times, infuriating at others, The Cabin in the Woods is going to be a hard act to follow.