Since Scream shook up the genre—like someone shaking up a can of soda—genuine horror movies have been hard to find. Their “clever” cousins, meta-horrors, are everywhere, but their focus is too self-referential, harkening back to those films that shaped the form by referencing them as sly in-jokes shared between screenwriters and audience rather than breaking new ground with exciting ideas. With a few notable exceptions, genuine horror films (films that eschew jabs and genre commentary in favor of thrills, scares, and heart-pounding moments) have disappeared from Hollywood. Long gone are the days of Rosemary’s Baby or even Nightmare on Elm Street.
Trylon microcinema, October 24-26
Director: Drew Goddard
Producers: Jason Clark, John Swallow, Joss Whedon
Writers: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Cinematographer: Peter Deming
Editors: Lisa Lassek
Music: David Julyan
Cast: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Bradley Whitford
Premiere: March 9, 2012 - SXSW
US Theatrical Release: April 13, 2012
US Distributors: Lionsgate
The Cabin in the Woods is no exception, but it is at least somewhat justified in that decision—based as it is on the film’s core conceit. The narrative follows a gang of high school friends who go up to a creepy cabin in the woods (cue self-referential horror) for a weekend of debaucherous fun. Unbeknownst to them, the cabin is actually the front for a government agency charged with satiating the ancient dark powers of the world by giving them regular human sacrifices—our teenage gang is not so much friends as a carefully selected group tailored to fill the roles involved in an ancient ritual, and the deck is stacked against their survival.
The group is made up of the archetypes virgin, athlete, whore, fool, and scholar, (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchinson, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams respectively) each a type that has been sacrificed on some regular basis for all of human history. And, due to the strangely specific strictures of this ritual, the group must be found responsible for their own fate, they must choose and cause their own demises, though this mysterious agency does keep on hand hundreds of horrifying monsters ready to release on the cabin’s inhabitants. Not only that, but their captors secretly cajole and guide them, piping in spooky noises, drugging their food and gassing the cabin with mind-affecting vapors, and setting out countless objects so that the group may accidentally summon up a terrible monster. The whole thing is run with near-military precision, helmed by two heartless executives who order around the whole operation from a war room-like subterranean hangar.
But within that very high concept constraint, and the “meta-horror only” restrictions set forward by contemporary Hollywood, Cabin in the Woods still sneaks in a few genuine thrills. This is particularly apparent when the group, being attacked by zombies, tries to barricade the windows to defend themselves. These barricades hold up for all of 30 seconds, cementing the idea into place that nowhere is safe from the forces that threaten them—a refreshingly scary moment. While a lot of the deaths and dismemberments are a little too carefully polished to be scary, the suspenseful moments in between are exciting and fun.
The whole thing smacks of Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and produced the film. While it’s nice to see Whedon turning back to his teenage roots—the hangar headquarters is oddly reminiscent of a similar underground headquarters on the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—the concept feels tired and stretched thin. Why all the peculiar rules we see enacted are in place in the first place is never explained—wouldn’t these ancient, all-powerful beings be able to see the drugs being pumped into their unwitting sacrifices? Without a well-executed rationale, most of the machinations come across as strangely unwarranted.
Most of that issue is made up for by the acting. All of the high school leads are excellent, particularly the fool (Kranz), a conspiracy-spinning pothead who hits many of the same notes as Dazed and Confused’s Slater as a believably profound burnout. And the nameless organization is helmed by The West Wing’s Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), reprising essentially the same role that won him an Emmy—an arrogant megalomaniac yelling at people in an office. He is just as convincing this time around. The special effects are carefully done (at times too carefully) and the menagerie of monsters and fiends is intriguing, even if we don’t get to spend enough time with them to really understand how scary they could be—each is likely a reference to some other horror film or trope but as there are hundreds, it’s hard to keep track. As a contemporary winking horror film, The Cabin in the Woods is good, but it only begs the question of what it would look like had it been made in the pre-Scream era. We can only begin to imagine how much scarier it would have been.