Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen.
When MGM went bankrupt in 2010, this film, although complete, was one of the casualties. It languished in development hell for a couple of years until Lionsgate bought the rights for its release, and it’s easy to see both why it was left alone also why Lionsgate did finally take a punt, because The Cabin in the Woods is totally unpredictable.
That it features Chris Hemsworth (currently to be seen as Thor in Avengers Assemble) in a relatively small role adds to the unpredictability, as you can see how far his star has since risen given that he now commands leading roles in blockbusters. The real star, though, is producer Joss Whedon, who co-wrote the film with director Drew Goddard. His name being attached (Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and also wrote and directed the recent Avengers Assemble) will always pique the interest of fans of his trademark humour and dialogue, which are present and correct here – albeit not quite as witty and amusing as in his past glories. But it is the plot and purpose of the film that is most obviously Whedon – a “loving hate-letter”, as he described it, to the current trend of horror towards ‘torture porn’ vehicles such as The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise. It’s no straight-up spoof, but The Cabin in the Woods certainly succeeds in sending up the dumb, one-dimensional kids getting their gory, sadistic comeuppances in the above-mentioned films.
Five college kids – three guys, two girls – head off in a van to spend the weekend in an old log cabin next to a lake in the woods. On the journey, they unsurprisingly receive a warning that their little vacation may not be the harmless fun they had hoped, courtesy of a scary run-down petrol station owner. So far, so teen-horror. But they keep on keepin’ on regardless, of course, and it soon emerges that they are under surveillance from some important U.S. government people, including Josh from The West Wing (Bradley Whitford), in a top secret lair somewhere. And, from here onwards, The Cabin in the Woods goes absolutely batshit crazy.
Indeed, watching this without expectation, I was reminded of seeing From Dusk Till Dawn for the first time, in so far as the first 20 minutes mistakenly point you in a very different direction. But unlike that film, here the bogus signposts crop up throughout, and it is only on looking back afterwards that you begin to remember the many absurd scenes hinting towards events that never happen. Jules (Anna Hutchison) spends a good while felating the tongue of a taxidermied wolf’s head on the wall while background music builds up a creepy tension, and there’s a discovery of a window between two bedrooms in the cabin underneath a painting. These incidental moments add a strange kind of humour that only hits you later on, but then there’s also immediate slapstick in some of the violence and also in Curt’s (Chris Hemsworth) bike crash.
Still, this is not a comedy, and ultimately whether the humour tickles or the gore (of which there is a fair amount) satisfies the horror fans’ bloodlust is by-the-by, because the fun is in sitting in stunned silence, totally blind to what might happen next. There are so many times when you have literally no idea, which is a giddy and thrilling ride that’s all-too-rare in cinema. So while some lines aren’t quite as clever as you’d expect from Whedon, and neither the characters that interesting, these quibbles feel far less important in a film that also features a murderous unicorn and an unexpected star cameo whose purpose is to explain the end of the world. How you ended up at these points is anyone’s guess, and that’s the whole attraction.