Just before a recent advance screening of The Cabin in the Woods, a friendly publicist asked the assembled bloggers and critics if we would please refrain from disclosing any of the “reveals, surprises and uncredited performances” in the movie we were about to see. I’m happy to oblige, though I worry that it might count as a spoiler even to mention that there are reveals, surprises and uncredited performances.
The filmmakers — Drew Goddard directed and collaborated on the script with the estimable Joss Whedon, one of the producers — clearly went to a lot of trouble to put all that stuff in. With compulsive effort that is meant to feel like giddy abandon, they have tried to make a horror movie that is frightening, original and knowing, all at the same time. Two out of three is not bad, given the difficulty of the task. A wink can sometimes undermine a scare. Novelty and genre traditionalism often fight to a draw. Too much overt cleverness has a way of spoiling dumb, reliable thrills. And despite the evident ingenuity and strenuous labor that went into it, The Cabin in the Woods does not quite work.
Which is not to say that it entirely fails, either. Right at the beginning two parallel conceits are set in motion. Five attractive young people, full of pheromones and naive exuberance, set off for a party weekend in a remote — well, take a guess.
Meanwhile, a pair of white-shirted white guys (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) busy themselves at what looks like NASA ground control or Norad headquarters or some other supersecret, ultradangerous, highly secure official facility. Though it does not take long to discern a connection between what they and their colleagues are doing and what those kids in the woods are up to, I will retreat into generality and indirection for the rest of this review. I don’t want that publicist to come after me with a chain saw.
The Cabin in the Woods
Directed by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Kristen Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), Bradley Whitford (Hadley), Brian White (Truman), Amy Acker (Lin)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Some of the pleasure of the first (and best) part of The Cabin in the Woods comes from trying to see just over the narrative horizon and figure out what these incompatible sets of cliches have to do with each other. Two distinct kinds of movie are being yoked, by violence, together, and the performers inhabit their familiar roles with unusual wit.
Since this is — at least officially and at least half the time — a slasher/zombie/monster kind of movie, the revelers are arranged according to well-known types. Or they seem to be: the discrepancies between those assigned identities and other, less predictable aspects of their personalities turn out to be part of an elaborate meta-meta-joke. The designated dumb jock (Chris Hemsworth) and the designated dumb blonde (Anna Hutchison) may not actually be all that dumb. The cynical, paranoid stoner (Fran Kranz) might turn out to be more sensible than most of his friends. Even the bland, nice, would-be couple (Kristen Connolly and Jesse Williams, both charming) whose survival you are primed to root for, are kind of, well, interesting. Now let’s sit back and watch them die!
Once the doomed five reach their destination (after an ominous stop at a deserted gas station), terrible things begin to happen pretty much on schedule, and the two plots begin to converge. Whitford and Jenkins provide clues and tongue-in-cheek commentary about the ordeal at the cabin in the woods, which they are observing along with a nervous