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Review: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Directed by: Drew Goddard

Premise: A group of young adults spend a weekend at an isolated cabin and find themselves under attack by supernatural forces that are being manipulated by white collar operators in a control room.

What Works: The Cabin in the Woods is a film clearly made for a particular audience. In this case, it was made for horror fans and the picture is littered with references to other movies. The intended viewers should enjoy spotting references to films like Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, Night of the Living Dead, Hellraiser, and The Wicker Man, as well as allusions to horror literature, namely the Cthulu stories of H.P. Lovecraft. The Cabin in the Woods also has a sense of humor, which makes the film more tolerable. Most of the humor is delivered by the obligatory stoner character played by Fran Kranz. Although there is some of the usual drug humor and stoner paranoia, his character is likable in a way that equivalent characters in other movies are not. Also impressive are the characters in the control room played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Although their situation is unusual, the actors approach it like working stiffs in an office and that gives the scenario some credibility and absurd humor.

What Doesn’t: The Cabin in the Woods is a film with a lot of ambition but it fails to realize that ambition on the screen. In fact, The Cabin in the Woods stumbles on a number of classic mistakes, making it almost a textbook example of what not to do in in film. To start, the filmmakers fancy themselves making a meta-story, meaning that The Cabin in the Woods is a film about other films and in this case about the nature of horror stories. The picture fulfills that definition but The Cabin in the Woods pales in comparison to other films that have done this better such as Scream or New Nightmare. It falls short because there is a difference between making allusions to other films and actually commenting on them. The filmmakers have packed their movie with visual references to other horror pictures but that is not in itself insightful. All this does is advertise the filmmaker’s awareness of the genre’s conventions and clichés. Without taking the extra step of providing a meaning for all this the filmmakers actually do themselves a disservice because the constant references to other pictures gets very distracting. Second, the filmmakers try to substitute meta-textual elements for actual storytelling. Self-conscious cannot replace compelling characters and coherent plots, nor does it excuse the filmmakers from competent movie making. If anything, it requires them to work harder and distinguish their story from the films that they are imitating. The characters of The Cabin in the Woods are barely horror film stereotypes; they are not characterized and behave stupidly, which is antithetical to the intelligence that should accompany genre awareness. The picture also fails as a horror story; The Cabin in the Woods isn’t very scary in part because it never establishes an atmosphere of dread and because many of the scenes are so poorly lit that it is impossible to follow the action. Lastly, the filmmakers have devised a clever scenario but outsmart themselves and become trapped by it. The elaborate scenario raises all kinds of questions about how the victims were lured to the cabin or why the operators would go through this impractical scenario. The story makes it clear that this entire set-up is a ritual but by its nature ritual requires specific space, time, and procedure and when the film gets to its finale the filmmakers play fast and loose with their own logic, undermining the whole premise of the movie.

Bottom Line: The idea for The Cabin in the Woods is great but the film is not. The filmmakers falls victim to their own pretension and self-indulgence, putting on a show of their fanboy bona fides and forgetting the primal fear that makes a horror picture work in the first place. 

Episode: #385 (April 22, 2012)