If there is one consistent notion in the work of writer-director Joss Whedon, it is that evil is not random, that the horrors visited upon people always have an underlying — and sometimes mythic — explanation. And evil is all the more horrifying because it has its own rationale; there is no such thing as a senseless crime.
The Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also directed), applies this thinking to one of the most tired conceits in horror: a group of young people encountering violent forces at an isolated location. But there is a reason for the violence (which a trailer for the movie only begins to explain). The level of carnage and the array of references to other horror films are far beyond what the deliberately vague trailers imply. Some scenes will have fans eagerly awaiting a video release so they can study the images and homages layering the film.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because it is twisty and fun to discover (and, at a recent screening, the audience was warned not to give away too much). It is often funny and, in the later stages, extremely bloody. It understands the ridiculousness of the isolated-peril premise, at once mocking and explaining it; it may be the first movie to offer a clear explanation of why the people caught in these circumstances so often act stupidly. There is a little bit of Scream in its self-awareness, but Whedon was after something grander here.
And it is an excellent addition to Whedon’s body of work, which includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of which had Goddard as a writer; Firefly/Serenity; and the upcoming The Avengers, shot partly in Cleveland. And there are good performances from a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth as one of the cabin visitors, and Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as a couple of mysterious control-room operators. (Look also for some members of Whedon’s stock company, including Amy Acker.)
Goddard and Whedon know how to pace a piece, balancing the violence with milder moments to keep the audience wondering and the tension mounting.
The movie does have a couple of problems. One plot twist is telegraphed very early, diminishing its impact. And the night scenes were often far too dark, obscuring details.
But the bigger mystery for some audiences may be why this movie, made in 2009, has taken so long to get to screens. According to published reports, some delays resulted when its original studio, MGM, decided to convert the movie to 3-D over Goddard’s and Whedon’s objections. Then MGM ran into financial problems, not only halting the 3-D effort but also stalling any release of the film. Fortunately, Lionsgate finally stepped in and gave the movie its well-deserved release.
I am not as a rule a horror-movie fan. The gore level in contemporary movies is for the most part too high and unjustified by the stories containing it. But Cabin is thinking-person’s horror. I could still have done without some of the carnage, but the wit and depth of Cabin more than made up for it.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.