For me, there are only two things worse than a self-important horror film. One is a horror movie that only exists to showcase gore. The other is a horror movie that relies on twists that throw everything you knew out the window. If you only stare at yourself and comment on how clever you/your effects/your twists are, you push the audience right out of the story at every turn.
While watching The Cabin in the Woods, I kept wondering why I was being pushed into my own thoughts so much. I had no problems with films like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon critiquing the genre while crafting an original story. Scream 4 got a few laughs out of me for small nods to trends that were never dwelled on. Yet The Cabin in the Woods, a film I still liked quite a bit, put me in a Brechtian mood I’m struggling to understand.There are two intertwined but mostly separate plot lines driving The Cabin in the Woods. The frustrating part is knowing that it’s only safe to talk about the one plot. A group of five college students go up to a remote cabin for a weekend getaway. Bad things happen. To discuss the other plot is to spoil the fun of the movie.
Maybe I’m jaded from seeing so many self-referential horror films in the past. Maybe it’s the challenge of preaching to an audience while trying to satisfy them at the same time. Or maybe it’s just a case of writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard trying too hard to do something they thought was new.
There is a lot of novelty in the other plot line that I found amusing. There are twisted references to most every major horror release and trend of the last thirty years. For example, Whedon and Goddard took great joy in satirizing the J-Horror phenomenon down to the boarding school setting and the stringy haired ghost.
Perhaps the most clever moment in the film is when the college students unleash the horror in the cabin. Each of the five characters becomes obsessed with a different cliched horror object. One girl is playing with an old locket. Her boyfriend is twisting the nobs on a spiked puzzle box. Toys, diaries, film strips, even conch shells become irresistible to the partying students. It’s one of the most effective critiques I’ve ever seen of the seal your own doom school of horror.
That might be the best way to look at The Cabin in the Woods. It is clever. Taken individually, all the gags and criticisms work. Do Whedon and Goddard keep swinging for the fences after they’ve guaranteed victory in the game? Yes. And that’s where my problems come in.I would describe The Cabin in the Woods as a self-important, rather than self-referential, horror because it never relaxes. The first scene tells you most of what you need to know about the rest of the film. Still, we’re forced to live out every moment from a few different perspectives, sometimes revisiting the same scene mere seconds after it ends.
The whole thing is oozing in “aren’t we clever?” moments that would have felt more authentic with more judicious editing. The Cabin in the Woods either needed to be longer to spend a little more time in the various stages of the story or shorter to create a better sense of urgency to the dog pile of horror cliches. It’s not that you can’t have a nonstop horror film be successful. You just need to eventually lock into a track and see it through to the end.
With that said, The Cabin in the Woods does offer a lot to keep a horror fan happy. The performances are great and really bring the humor intended in the critique to life. The unending series of references to the best horrors in recent history will make you smile. Even the subversion of slasher archetypes feels fresh. I just wish that Whedon and Goddard could have stepped back and tightened their focus after the first act. They throw everything at the screen and it doesn’t all stick. It’s an interesting experiment that just tries to do to much to truly be great.
Thoughts? Love to hear them. Keep in mind that, for me, a 6/10 is still a good rating. It just means that a film has some distracting flaws that bring down the overall quality.