Drawing a Line in the Sand: Drew Goddard’s THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

With the possible exception of the upcoming, two-part adaptation of THE HOBBIT, it’s hard to imagine a recent film more steeped in production issues than THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (ironically enough, both of these films’ problems derive [largely] from MGM’s 2010 implosion and eventual bankruptcy). Wrapping principal photography in May of 2009, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS sat on the shelf for an unbelievable three years before finally being salvaged by Lionsgate, who managed to release the project last weekend. To put this dormancy into proper perspective, it’s worth noting that one of the film’s stars, Chris Hemsworth (now known primarily for being the God of Thunder, Thor, in Marvel’s AVENGERS world) had not even yet broken into the spotlight in J.J.’s reboot of STAR TREK at the time of the film’s completion.

Directed and co-written by Bad Robot alumni Drew Goddard (whom fans of the school of J.J. will recognize from his contributions to LOST, not to mention as the scribe of the criminally underrated CLOVERFIELD) and produced and co-written by fanboy-fave Joss Whedon (who is now the director of THE AVENGERS – funny how it all comes together like that), THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is not just the first really terrific genre film of the year; it’s one of the best, period.

Mystery box aficionados should be familiar with Bad Robot’s know-as-little-as-possible-about-the-film-before-seeing-it approach, and this is no different: I cannot possibly stress the fact enough that you should see this film as fresh as humanly possible. Although THE CABIN IN THE WOODS does not rely on its surprises to make it the refreshingly spectacular genre entry that it is, it certainly is enhanced by them; getting blindsided by each absurdly intelligent twist as they develop is half of the fun. It’s for this reason that I’m going to avoid spoiling anything about the film in the following review, so feel free to read on even if you haven’t seen the movie yet; but – and I really mean this – the less you know, the better. You’ve been warned.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is a spectacularly intricate deconstruction of the horror genre.   It’s so devastating, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine any viewer ever looking at horror films the same way again after seeing this movie. What’s truly impressive, however, is the fact that it manages to skewer the genre whilst simultaneously being an entry in it. Make no mistake: this is a horror film in spite of all of the comedy. Much in the same way that the recent TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL lampooned horror archetypes, Goddard and Whedon manage to pay off those archetypes even as they subvert them beyond recognition; just because characters are frequently aware of the fact that they are playing into very specific conventions, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to make those mistakes anyway.

But this is no mere subversion. What this film does goes beyond simple satire and into the very soul of what makes the genre tick: it takes every stereotype imaginable (gender, character, structural – you name it) and not only subverts those elements, it actually gives reasons for why they exist before metaphorically, metaphysically and yes, even literally tearing them apart. And as the film progresses towards its utterly bat-shit finale, one gets the feeling that you will never, ever watch another horror film without associating it with the new rulebook that this creative duo have concocted. Because, in actuality, that’s what THE CABIN IN THE WOODS does: it takes the rules, lays them all out for the audience, then deconstructs every line (and even the stuff between the lines) before rewriting the whole book from the ground up. This is a reinvention of a genre that’s been in such desperate need of revitalization that I can’t help but wonder how the landscape of horror might have been affected had it been released several years ago as planned.

The performances are pitch-perfect. Each character is perfectly cast in their specific roles,  and they never stray, even as the whole world beginnings to fall down around them: the “athlete”, the “fool”, the “whore”, the “scholar” and the “virgin” all sit in their ritualistic corners, awaiting inevitability with due (and sometimes knowing) patience. But what’s particularly fascinating is the nonchalant, mundane characters that the meta aspects of the story give us: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are the soul of the film, the impossibly perfect proxies for Whedon and Goddard who go to work as fed up with their own dedication to tradition as their counterparts are. Much of the comedy – not to mention much of the originality – comes from their absurdity in the first half of the film as the audience struggles to grasp just what their purpose is. Their interaction in the opening scene of the movie – the elegantly mundane conversation that seems so completely out of place – becomes more telling the more we learn about what the real plot and theme of the film is, pointing a knowing finger back on the artists that work in the genre (including themselves).

But Whedon and Goddard are not content to merely point out the psychology and metaphorical nuances of horror storytellers through meta-narrative; they take it all a step further, adding layers of meaning to that psychoanalysis and wrapping it up in a literal narrative that’s so impossibly ludicrous that the audience (and the characters) are forced to completely reject it, regardless of the moral and philosophical implications. Even at the end of all things, humanity – oh so perfectly encapsulated in a single, shared joint of pot – trumps questions of existential debate any day. Marty sums it up with (paraphrased) earthy, stoner wisdom: if this is the cost, then maybe we need a change.

Fuck “humanity”. They made them choose, and choose they did.

Elegantly directed, cleverly written and featuring a final act that is the wet dream of genre fans the world over, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is the best film of the year thus far.

9/10

d.a. garabedian

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