Building on what things like Evil Dead and Return of the Living Dead did in the 1980's and Shaun of the Dead and especially the Scream franchise did last decade, director and co-screenwriter Drew Goddard and producer and co-screenwriter Joss Whedon have taken tight hold of the horror genre and squeezed and twisted and folded and mutilated it until it screamed for mercy, then pushed it just a bit further until it figuratively and literally (not to give any spoilers away) came tumbling down on its own already fractured head. An elaborately structured M.C. Escher house of cards that not only deconstructs the genre in all its giddy meta-cinema glory (or gory) but also gives it the kick in the ass wake-up call it has so desperately needed for oh so long. This ladies and gentlemen, is The Cabin in the Woods. For those in the more self-aware camp of moviegoers (i.e. the film geeks and cinephiles among us) this film should delight and entice. For those looking for your typical horror flick, good luck.
Taking the typical tricks and tropes of the genre, Whedon and Goddard have concocted a film that by all outwardly appearances looks to be that same said typical horror flick, but once turned inside out and/or upside down, becomes a creature unlike anything else in this world or the next. After a short prelude of men and women in lab coats walking around some sort of sterilized government-esque facility, talking about their marital problems and having mysterious conversations about how Stockholm has fallen and how the Japanese will always be number one, screen-filling red block letters announce the title in what appears to be an homage of sorts to Michael Haneke's Funny Games, and we are underway. Next up we see the stereotypical college kids (suspiciously quite post-grad looking in appearance) getting ready for a weekend trip to the titular vacation spot, all in their respective genre-specific roles. This is where we see the typical genre archetypes line up for the slaughter. At this point, if you think you know what is coming next, think again. Than after that, think again some more. Repeat when and if necessary.
Now to give away any more of the twisted, topsy-turvy plot here would be giving away too much, and even though bits and pieces are given away in the trailer and any even semi-knowledgeable moviegoer would easily be able to decipher at least the most basic aspects of the secrets of the film, I would not wish to spoil the unfolding, multi-layered events for anyone out there. Suffice it to say that we do get to see these aforementioned genre archetypes - the jock, the slut, the stoner, the scholar and the virgin (or at least virginal seeming in this case - "we work with what we got") - get their all-important comeuppances, and we are allowed some of the other tricks of the so-called trade - the creepy, semi-toothless redneck who warns our intrepid collegiates of their impending doom, the dark basement where of course our brave soldiers giddily tread, the ubiquitous, albeit rather tame game of truth or dare, strange noises and happenings and of course the requisite zombie or two - but once plot twists begin putting a stranglehold on the deconstructive proceedings, and especially once everything goes completely batshitcrazy (look out for a rather bloodthirsty unicorn - I joke not), this will never be you grandpa's horror movie again.
Now as part of the ever-expanding Whedonverse (along with Goddard, this film contains several Whedon regulars including Dollhouses's paranoiac Fran Kranz as the stoner who figures it all out, sort of, in a haze of weed) one should expect nothing less than batshitcrazy antics from a film like The Cabin in the Woods, and therefore nothing, even the surprises (and if one looks closely they will see many hidden easter eggs in here), should really surprise one all that much, but still, watching the layers of the film, and therefore the layers of both cinematic sanity and genre manipulation (and possibly many of our real-life nightmarish ideas), come peeling off quicker and quicker as the film pushes forward - ofttimes in seeming turbo mode - this possible game-changer of a film is a film geek's wettest dreams come to, appropriately enough, its very own nightmarish reality. What we get is a film that mocks the genre while at the same time caressing its finer points like a love sick puppy. We get a movie that obviously loves the genre while simultaneously desiring to rip it to shreds - and then perhaps rip those shreds to shreds as well.
In what Whedon has called a 'loving hate letter', the producer/writer/director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, an astonishing run on Marvel Comics' Astonishing X-Men, internet favourite Dr. Horrible and the upcoming big budget wouldbe boffo The Avengers, says this of The Cabin in the Woods: "On another level it's a serious critique of what we love and what we don't about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be alright but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don't like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction." And rip it to shreds they do, but in the most alluring manner indeed. We, like the characters herein, know we are going to a dark and dangerous place, but we, like they, ignore the warning signs, no matter how blatant they may very well be, and proceed forward anyway, knowing full well our doom awaits us at the end of the journey.
Populating their wooded cabin with veritable unknowns led by Kristen Connolly as the wouldbe final girl (the relatively untested soap opera actress more than holds her own in the role), the aforementioned Mr. Kranz (indeed a performance that could be used in any legalize pot ad) and bohunk Aussie Chris Hemsworth (during the nearly two year post-production hiatus this film suffered due to MGM's financial woes, then unknown Hemsworth has become the Mighty Thor and is these days basking in the glow of it-boy status) and popping in a few relative names (Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Sigourney Weaver), Whedon and Goddard have created a sturm und drang of cinema that does for the horror genre what Todd Haynes' equally audacious, cut and paste I'm Not There did for the biopic. I do not think I am being presumptuous in calling this the best American film of the year so far, and a sure bet for my eventual Best of the Year list. I do not think I would be wrong in calling this puzzle-cum-mindfuck of a motion picture, the most batshitcrazy of the year as well - even if many horror fans will not get or like it. In the end, when the gauntlet is almost literally thrown down, all we can do is wonder what could possibly follow this inevitable moment zero in the horror genre. I know that I for one am both frightened and titillated by the possibilities.