The Cabin in the Woods questions horror

The marketing campaign for The Cabin in the Woods wants to make potential audiences aware of one thing: This is not simply a movie about a cabin in the woods. To go into much more detail than that, insist the creative forces behind the film, would be revealing too much. In the interests of keeping things vague: Five college-age friends decide to take a trip to the scenic cabin one of their cousins recently acquired.

Challenge accepted · Kristen Connolly (above) stars as the likable and innocent Dana in The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard’s horror flick that plays with the tried and true themes and motifs of the genre. - Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Entertainment

All the standbys of the genre are proudly represented. There’s the promiscuous blonde (Anna Hutchison), her meathead boyfriend (Chris Hemsworth, before he was Thor), the less boisterous smart guy (Jesse Williams), the likable, innocent girl (Kristen Connolly) and the comic relief stoner (Fran Kranz). If they sound like they could be the cast of any horror movie, well, that’s by design — and not in the way one might think.

Cabin in the Woods is a feast for the pop-culture savvy, a bold and ridiculous deconstruction of its genre. What is horror anyway? Why do audiences line up again and again to see the same stock characters brutally murdered for their sexuality, their drug use or for being too clever?

Oh sure, that’s not what literally happens. There’s a cursed book, or a prank gone wrong or a mystical conch shell of the damned that the teens stumble upon and before they know it, some force of nightmare emerges to exact its revenge. But that’s all metaphor, isn’t it? In these sorts of movies, we know the girl is doomed the moment she takes her top off, whether or not the zombies, vampires or gargoyles have even bothered to show up.

The way our culture repeats these tropes — ad nauseam — without audiences ever really growing tired of them can feel like a ritual. Why is that? What would happen if horror just tried something new for once? At the risk of saying too much, The Cabin in the Woods is a meditation on all these ideas. It confronts the horror genre head on, seeking out a possible reason for the patterns found in our media. It goes so far as to propose an explanation.

This is not a film with one big twist at the end. In fact, by the time the title (hilariously) appears on-screen, viewers who have really paid attention might have a pretty good idea where the movie is headed. The opening scene doesn’t appear to have anything to do with some teens off for a weekend getaway. Just a few very average-looking people getting ready for the daily minutiae of some sort of office job. But really listen to what they’re saying. That discussion, paired with the first few gory images that precede it, tells viewers a lot of what they need to know.

But even then it won’t be long before the premise is more or less revealed to the audience. This movie doesn’t have a big twist; it has an iceberg. It reveals the tip right away. As the story progresses, viewers simply get a better idea of how much mass is below the surface.

For the first hour or so, The Cabin in the Woods is a very clever look at what goes into creating horror. Fans of Joss Whedon will likely be pleased that the script he penned, along with director Drew Goddard, is much more witty than bone-chilling. The five young actors play their parts well, both their dialogue and performances add depth to characters that might be tempting to immediately write off as stereotypes.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are also phenomenal as the office workers — hybrids of studio executives and NASA mission controllers — who draw laughs with a tongue-in-cheek approach that’s endearing one minute and disturbingly callous the next.

There’s a point toward the end of the second half when it feels like the film has said all it’s needed to say. That maybe the film will be satisfied by offering a few scares and calling it a day.

Then come the last 30 minutes: a grandiose ballet of visceral insanity where everything comes to a deeply satisfying head that ties it all together brilliantly. There’s a glaring missing piece in the plot or two, and filmgoers seeking out typical, simple scares might be disappointed by the emphases on comedy and self-reflection. But for true horror fans and anyone looking for something fresh or different, The Cabin in the Woods is a bloody slice of nirvana.

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