Film Review: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I’ve been following this film for a long time (it was originally filmed in 2009, but its release was delayed by MGM’s bankruptcy), protecting myself from spoilers, dreaming of a fresh new genre deconstruction that’s also a great horror film in its own right.

Having now seen the film, I don’t understand the media embargo regarding spoilers. The entire plot of the movie has, actually, been given away by the official trailer. And if it hadn’t been given away in the trailer, the basic conceit is given away in the first five minutes of the actual film. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard and directed by Goddard, the film looks to be a clone of The Evil Dead, but ends up being more like The Evil Dead mashed together with the Initiative from season four of Whedon’s Buffy, except instead of being run by Lindsay Crouse, this paramilitary group is run by — well, I guess I can’t say. The day-to-day operations are handled by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins (my favorite characters), with Amy Acker saying some lines over their shoulders.

I wanted a lot from this movie, perhaps too much. When I saw the 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought I was in for a treat. Sad to say, I was let down. The Cabin in the Woods is not a bad film; it’s just not a great one, and it’s disrespectful of its own genre. I enjoyed it far less than last year’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Cabin is slicker and savvier, but it’s also lacking any really likable characters, which given Whedon’s presence as co-scriptwriter, surprised me. Kristen Connolly’s Dana is no Sydney Prescott, and Fran Kranz’s stoner Marty is such an obnoxious, selfish twit he nearly ruins the film single-handedly (I also hated this actor a lot in Whedon’s Dollhouse, and my opinion of him has only grown worse).  The film is also not very scary or funny (it made me laugh a couple times and scared me not once). The trouble with the movie’s monsters is that they seem like the off-brand versions of villains we know too well. Instead of Hellraiser‘s Pinhead, we get a vaguely S&M-ish guy holding a puzzle sphere with saw-blades in his face. The film ends up less involving than if someone took the posters of a thousand horror films, cut them up, threw them on the floor, and then pissed on them to make them less recognizable.

Now I’m going to discuss the specific things I didn’t like about the movie. In detail. Get out now if you want to see this for yourself; spoilers after the jump.

You’ve been warned.

Ok, I’ll start with some good stuff. There were two monsters I loved: the murderous unicorn was inspired, as was the merman (man, did I love the merman–the whole merman subplot, everything about it made me happy). I also really enjoy the resolution of the situation in Japan. Turning the demon into a frog was hilarious.

I also more or less enjoyed the pandemonium of the purge, where two of the film’s surviving kids make it to the basement of the facility and unleash all the nightmare pets being kept in glass cubes underground. The mayhem was fast, gory, and quite the splatterfest.

But despite the explosions of gore, it was all very campy, and worse–it was camp designed to lecture its audience. The basic premise of the movie is that every so often, there needs to be some ritualized slaughter of trope characters in order to keep the Elder Gods from rising up from the depths and destroying the world. The team running the show beneath the cabin in the woods is an American group, but there are other teams in Japan and elsewhere across the world. The rules for the sacrifice (apparently region-specific, mind you, since the Japanese seem to be doing something entirely different) are common genre conventions: there must be at least five kids (a jock, a slut, a brain, a fool, and a virgin), and the virgin must last to the end (death optional). That the characters in the film don’t quite fit into their roles is something the movie has a bit of fun with (the jock is actually smart; the virgin is not a virgin; the blonde is not really a blonde; etc), albeit fun in the way of ho-hum inversion (see the previous parenthetical; all of those examples feel just as tired as they sound), while the technical team releases misty pheromones into the air to nudge the kids into behaving more like they are supposed to for the sake of the sacrificial rite.

Get the idea yet? The requirements of the genre are reductive! The Elder Gods are the audience, coming to witness the same old slasher film again and again, making the technical team reheat the same hash with some version of a monster performing the role of killer (in Cabin, the five characters are guided into the basement, where they pick through heaps of cursed relics, their choice of object ultimately deciding which monster or monsters will tear their flesh apart)!


I find this sort of have-my-cake-and-use-it-to-kill-somebody-too style of sermonized horror filmmaking hypocritical, uneducated, and offensive. I didn’t like Haneke’s Funny Games or Tom Six’s The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence for similar reasonsand I’m uncomfortable with any film which seeks to chastise its audience by making a film that looks like the kind of movie said audience would want to see. “Oh, you just spent money to see a horror film?! Well, thanks for your cash, and by the way: shame on you!” 

Well, gosh, thanks for the fourteen-dollar slap on the wrist.

For one, Whedon and Goddard made a horror film. It’s bloody. It’s got unnecessary nudity (and not just in the part which was about the technicians doing everything in their power to cause a sex scene; in the second scene of the film a girl is shown randomly walking around and talking to her friends in her underwear). Its characters are pretty damned two-dimensional. That it isn’t scary in the slightest is just another way they’ve failed.

Also, slasher films are a subgenre, they are not representative of the entire genre. Every time horror gets indicted, it’s by the kind of people who want to say that horror is just about teenagers getting picked off one -by-one, when in truth horror encompasses a much broader spectrum of narrative potential. Frankenstein wasn’t about teenagers getting picked off one-by-one. Rosemary’s Baby wasn’t, either. Nor was The Fly. Or even The Shining. Or The Silence of the Lambs. Or a billion other horror films. Yes, in the 80s, the slasher film genre reigned, but even then it didn’t represent everything that was out there for fans of dark and disturbing cinema.

But beyond either of these points, I resent the implication that this is what horror fans want. I loved Scream not because it was a slasher film, but because it was a smart film. I thought, then, that it was also a call for filmmakers to do better and to make more exciting, more intelligent films (turns out I was wrong, but those were still days of hope and promise). But beyond that, it had great characters I adored while at the same time putting them through the paces of an actually exciting horror film. Suggesting that horror fans want the repetition of a brain-dead formula is annoying, insulting, and wrong.

The horror genre does not need to apologize for itself; people who make bad horror films need to apologize to the horror genre. Also, I’d love it if people stopped insulting the audience by claiming that the audience wants bad films and also stopped insulting the audience by making bad films. Horror has a rich history, is deeply embedded in the best literature and stories and myths, yet it’s so easily marginalized by reductive and prudish thinking.

In the end, The Cabin in the Woods is just another mediocre, campy horror flick–amusing, and smarter than the average fare, perhaps, but also more misguided and infuriating. While it’s busy thinking of clever ways to be a self-hating horror film, it’s not finding any emotional truth in its story, or pausing to consider how selfish and awful the actions of its protagonists become under the parameters of its conceit.

If you had to die to save the world, wouldn’t you do it? I would. Yet these characters refuse, because it’s not really “the world” they’d be saving, but “the world of horror films,” which they deem as “not worth saving.” The point is, I suppose, that horror films that exist in order to slake the bloody thirst of its fans are not worth the deaths they depict, and so who cares? Don’t die to save that kind of “world,” let it be “destroyed”! Ok. But then how does such a sentiment work in a film where one person refusing to die equates to hundreds of people in the facility dying in gory ways? What has been “saved” there? How is any shred of such a meta-fictional argument intellectually valid or consistent?

I cry shenanigans on The Cabin in the Woods. The next time talented people want to criticize horror films, I hope they do it by simply being brave enough to try and make a good one–and save the self-righteous sermons for the pulpit.

  1. maxruehl said:

    Bless you, sir, for telling it like it is. I feel there’s a certain “Emperor’s New Clothes” thing going on with his film. So many people are seeing this wonderful, intricately woven “suit of clothes” while the small minority can see it for what it is–a naked mess (covered in warts, for good measure). I’m glad I’m not the only one who has problems with it. I was starting to think that maybe I’d become so jaded that I couldn’t see the charms of a film so many other people were so obviously smitten with.

    • Kristopher Kelly said:

      Thank YOU for this comment. I’ve been feeling a little alone and very perplexed over this movie.

      Just read a piece about the making of the film, which claims Goddard and Whedon wrote the script in 3 days.

      I mean … why am I not surprised.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and the solidarity.

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