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EDITOR’S NOTE: The latter section of this review reveals a surprise cameo and hints at final-act plot developments beyond those suggested by the trailers. Anyone wishing to maintain the element of surprise should avoid reading beyond the first few paragraphs.
NEW YORK – Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, respectively director and producer as well as co-screenwriters of this long-stalled feature, have described The Cabin in the Woods as their bid to revitalize the horror movie by subverting genre conventions. Nothing wrong with that plan, as the successful Scream franchise showed back in the ’90s. But when the meta-references take over at the expense of character or plot, as they do in this mutant hybrid of The Truman Show and The Evil Dead (just for starters), the knowing self-amusement wears thin.
Shot in early 2009 and shelved for more than two years from its original release date because of MGM’s financial turmoil, the film was acquired last year by Lionsgate. After premiering March 9 as the opener of the South by Southwest Film Festival (a savvy move given the target demographic), it will be released domestically April 13. Whedon cultists should turn out in sufficient numbers to goose initial box office, but only the geek faithful are likely to buy this high-concept slasher riff, which seems less like a movie than a video game waiting to happen.
Whedon protege Goddard worked as a writer on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel before teaming with J.J. Abrams on Alias and Lost, and as screenwriter of Cloverfield. That résumé no doubt has earned him his own following. But Whedon and Goddard run riot here on a script so overworked and convoluted, it makes the most arcane developments on Lost play like a “Spot the Dog” basal reader.
The story-within-the-story has five archetypal college kids going off the grid for a weekend at a remote cabin by a mountain lake. There’s the slut, Jules (Anna Hutchison); the alpha jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth, who hopefully will get a better deal in Whedon’s upcoming The Avengers); the stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz); the sensitive scholar, Holden (Jesse Williams); and the virgin, or the closest thing available, Dana (Kristen Connolly).
Given that the film’s primary twist can be gleaned from the trailer and from the opening minutes, it’s no spoiler to reveal that the cabin and surrounding woods are part of an artificially sealed environment controlled from an underground lab. The puppet-masters working the monitors and running the betting pool on how these sacrificial lambs will meet their slaughter are pitiless midlevel corporate techies Hadley (Richard Jenkins) and Sitterson (Bradley Whitford).
Adding a neat quirk, it appears that similar scenarios are being orchestrated around the world as part of an annual rite. The quick video flashes of a classroom of 9-year-old Japanese schoolgirls thrust into J-horror hell are a hoot.
Back at the cabin, the kids are doing what kids in horror movies do: They tap the beer keg, smoke some weed, play truth or dare and make out. When the cellar trapdoor flies open (“Must have been the wind”), they investigate and find a cornucopia of creepy knick-knacks. As Sitterson, Hadley and their co-workers watch intently to see which bait they will take, Dana discovers a girl’s diary from 1903, detailing the bloody religious fanaticism of her butchering father. A Latin inscription serves as the trigger for mayhem.
Once zombified backwoods pain-worshippers rise up and start swinging knives and steel claws, the carnage is strictly routine. The more droll touches come from the lab, where temperature controls, pheromone mists and other behavioral modifiers are unleashed on the captives with deadpan glee.
But when the predetermined order of death is disrupted and the cabin survivors turn the tables on their tormentors, liberating a whole army of deadly freaks and creatures, the climactic chaos becomes an excuse for orgiastic Grand Guignol excess. Cool for a minute or two, this quickly becomes numbing.
Clues are planted early on as to the overarching theme, when bong philosopher Marty muses on the perilous course that techno-age humanity has taken. (Kranz, from Whedon’s Dollhouse series, does a spot-on Shaggy from Scooby-Doo in the role.) But the plot’s mythic underpinnings are ludicrous, with Sigourney Weaver showing up as the company director in an unbilled cameo to blather on about “appeasing the ancient ones.” Given her association with the Alien and Ghostbusters series, Weaver’s iconic significance to both artful and comic horror makes her an ideal mistress of ceremonies for Whedon and Goddard’s killing party.
Effects work is slick, and Goddard keeps his foot on the accelerator with help from David Julyan’s suspense-building score. It’s just too bad the movie is never much more than a hollow exercise in self-reflexive cleverness that’s not nearly as ingenious as it seems to think.
Fanboys will have fun checking off all the winking acknowledgments to horrormeisters from Clive Barker to Stephen King and beyond, and to every permutation of the genre, spanning the past three or so decades. However, in order to subvert any popular form, entertainment first has to work on its own terms. Goddard and Whedon are too busy geeking out to bother with those requirements.
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