APRIL 13, 2012
Usually when a film sits on a shelf for a year or more it's because it's a piece of shit that they don't know what to do with. But The Cabin In The Woods' delay had nothing to do with the film's quality - the studio just didn't have any money to release it. Originally produced at MGM, the film was rescued by Lionsgate and finally hits theaters three years after it was shot, and as a bonus, it does not feature the post-converted 3D that was originally planned (and the cause of one delay). Long story short - this delay has actually been a benefit.
As they did on Buffy, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have delivered something truly special here; a comic-horror blend that plays with the conventions of a genre that both writers truly love. Unlike Scream, not a single movie is directly mentioned in Cabin, however it similarly makes its audience laugh by letting us know that they've seen all of those other horror movies too, and that this one isn't going to be like those. It's a tough balancing act; you don't want to get too jokey or else there won't be any real suspense - a problem that is exponentially more precarious when you consider you're dealing with Whedon here. His most famous works were lauded partly due to his refusal to play safe, often killing characters in a shocking/brutal manner without any foreshadowing. He pulls off the same sort of shenanigans here; you're never sure who's safe or who will be first to die, and that gives the film the rare ability to be suspenseful and funny in equal doses.
The plot, for the most part, is nothing really new. Our heroes are pals despite being very different in demeanor (a jock, a stoner, a bookworm...), and they're heading off to a family member's remote cabin. They stop at a creepy gas station, they discover their technological devices are of no use, they find creepy things in the basement... it's the same movie you've seen a million times, in other words. But the approach is wholly unique, giving the film not only a strong identity of its own while also making you re-think how you look at movies such as Evil Dead or Friday the 13th (hey, that's today!).
It also helps that the kids are likable and charming, particularly Chris Hemsworth as the jock and Kristen Connolly as the heroine. Their characters might be going through the usual motions, but I'm so used to hating at least half of the people in these movies that it didn't bother me in the slightest. Hell even when the third act inevitably resulted in (once again) our heroes succeeding where so many others have failed (we're told early on that the cabin has had many owners/visitors that have vanished). Sure, I would have liked a more interesting reason for THIS group having better luck against their tormentors, but I certainly wouldn't complain about it - it'd be akin to bemoaning the lack of a toy prize in your favorite box of cereal.
I also loved the shit out of the Buckner family, the film's primary villains. Sort of like the zombie version of the Sawyer clan from any Chainsaw film, they're imposing and scary, with enough variety to keep their frequent attacks from getting repetitive. The main dude has a great weapon, too: a variation on a cat o' nine tails which looks to be a bear trap attached to a chain. So he whips it around and when it catches something he can pull/drag it away in a most painful manner, an act that never gets less than cringe-worthy. Some might feel they enter the story a bit too late, but I liked how the film was structured - it didn't spring a giant glob of information on us at the halfway point as I had expected. Instead it tells you a bit of what's going on at the cabin from the first scene, and reveals things at a steady clip throughout, which allows for a pretty action-packed (and shockingly bloody) third act that only lets up to provide the final piece of the puzzle.
AND IT'S SCOPE!!! As an OCD movie nerd, I get so sad when big movies use the more common 1.85:1 ratio (like Avengers! Why, Joss?), and it's even more common in horror, particularly many of the films that this one is aping: Wrong Turn, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Evil Dead (which is actually 1.33:1), etc. Hell they even use the frame correctly for a scare; the stoner character goes out to pee and is standing in the center of the frame, but if you look to the right you'll see an out of focus Bruckner clan member start making his/her way toward him. This bit won't work on TV when cropped (if anyone crops down to 4:3 anymore, that is), something that I appreciate a filmmaker not giving a shit about in this day of "I'd rather watch it at home" viewing. Kudos to Goddard (and ace DP Peter Deming, who also shot Evil Dead 2, bringing this full circle) for giving this material the big theatrical look it deserves. He also offers the best freeze-frame/title reveal in years, so another round of applause on that one.
Hell, why be so specific? This may be the best horror film in years, too. As I look over my last couple of top ten lists, I see movies at the top that I love but aren't as excited to revisit. Obviously this review has left out some crucial information (even stuff the trailer gives away - hence why I did not embed it below), but I wanted to give you guys a chance to go in the same as I did - knowing almost nothing about the plot (without spoiling anything, let's just say I didn't know how some of the film's more familiar stars fit into the plot beforehand), plus attract those few who may be reading this site and somehow haven't even heard of the movie yet. I think I'll do another piece on it for my weekly Badass Digest column (next Tuesday) that gets more into that stuff. Until then, just be satisfied knowing that even after dozens of these movies, not to mention watching a horror movie every day for 5+ years, that there is still room not only to deliver something fresh and original, but to floor my jaded ass as well. Nothing but respect for every person involved in its production.
What say you?