The Cabin in the Woods: An over-the-top thrill ride with too few explanations

The Cabin in the Woods directed by Drew GoddardThe Cabin in the Woods directed by Drew Goddard

The Cabin in the Woods directed by Drew GoddardWhen The Cabin in the Woods was released in April 2012, it almost immediately became something of a sensation, a hit both with the critics and the public, ultimately going on to gross around $67 million at the box office, after having been produced for $30 million. Despite all that, however, and despite the fact that I am an old fan of a good horror movie, well told, I managed to miss the film when it was first run, and only caught up with it very recently, at home. And now, I am most regretful that I did not run to the theaters back when, as this really is a film that would have benefited from being seen on the big screen. It is an eye-popping film, loaded with suspense, action, scares, laughs, and amazing special FX; one that would have been ideal for seeing with a good audience. Not since 1996’s Scream, perhaps, has a motion picture so knowingly and winkingly toyed with the conventions of the horror film, and to such winning effect, all the while adding something fresh and new to the conversation. As I say, a perfect film for watching with others in a theater, and yet, so good is the film, that even at home it managed to stun and leave this viewer slack jawed, although not entirely satisfied. More on this in a moment.

The film is one that will undoubtedly leave the viewer feeling more and more puzzled as he/she watches. It opens inside what looks to be a highly advanced and scientific installation of some sort, where we see two men, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), casually joking around while making small talk about how the Swedes have just botched their end of the operation, leaving only the U.S. and Japan in the game. What ARE they talking about? We jump to five attractive college kids who are about to go off for a long weekend in the country. These students are athletic Curt (Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who had just started playing the role of Thor for Marvel Studios one year earlier), his blonde hottie girlfriend Jules (New Zealander actress Anna Hutchison), the bookish but buff Holden (Jesse Williams), stoner dude Marty (Fran Kranz), and sweet Dana (Kristen Connolly, who many will recognize from television’s House of Cards and Zoo). The five are horror-film archetypes – the athlete, the slutty girl, the scholar, the fool and the virgin, although Dana is admittedly hardly the latter, strangely enough – and before long, we are made witness to any number of other horror film conventions. They encounter a creepy gas station attendant en route to the cabin of Curt’s cousin, where they will be staying, while the viewer is made increasingly aware that things just aren’t right here.

The men in that scientific installation are keeping constant watch on the five, and, even more startling, a bird that flies high over the quintet’s van en route to their destination suddenly hits a force field of some kind and is puffed out of existence! Once at the cabin, a party gets started, while we see Sitterson and Hadley manipulate the proceedings from afar, changing the outside ambient air temperature, altering the moonlight (!), even allowing puffs of pheromone vapor to arise from the ground to increase Jules’ already primed libido. But matters really start to take off around the film’s 30-minute mark, when zombies arise from the earth, in response to some Latin words uttered by Dana from a creepy old diary that she had found in the cabin’s cellar. These zombies proceed to butcher several of the teens in a most ghastly manner during the film’s central third section, while another is killed during an escape attempt. Finally, in the film’s most flabbergasting sequence, the final half hour, the two students who are left (don’t ask me which ones, please) manage to discover the secret of just what the hell is going on as they penetrate that mysterious scientific facility, leading to monstrous mayhem the likes of which you have rarely seen on screen…

The Cabin in the Woods directed by Drew GoddardThe Cabin in the Woods is the type of film that grows increasingly wacky and more amazing as it proceeds, and indeed, its final half hour really is one for the books, mixing in as it does not just those hideous zombies, but also (take a deep breath) a hideous werewolf, a skull-faced wraith, a girl in a tutu whose face is a gaping cavity of fangs, a dude who might just be Pinhead’s cousin from Hellraiser (1987), giant snakes straight out of the pages of Robert E. Howard, winged creatures that beggar my poor powers of description, macabre doll people, a killer clown, monstrosities that spout green blood, a homicidal unicorn, a lumbering whatsit that tears its victims apart while spouting their blood out of its blowhole, and more … so many more. This monster mash in that scientific installation throws so very much at the viewer that it will be a sequence you will want to rewind and rewatch over and over again. And indeed, the entire film is one for which you might find the need to experience again immediately after your first viewing. During that first watch, while you are attempting to figure out what is transpiring, and why these scientists are doing what they’re doing, you’ll just barely hang on and go along for the ride. A second viewing will allow you to better appreciate how all the pieces kinda sorta fit together and make some kind of sense. And I say “kinda sorta” only because, unfortunately, the film hardly gives away all its secrets, and that is a pity.

The Cabin in the Woods has been directed in a very impressive and stylish manner by Drew Goddard, a former writer on television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias and Lost, as well as the films Cloverfield (2007), World War Z (2013) and The Martian (2015). As with Lost and Cloverfield, the film astonishes the viewer with its mysterious incidents and set pieces but ultimately fails to answer all our legitimate questions. Goddard, who wrote the film along with Joss Whedon (another Buffy screenwriter, as well as the screenwriter for Toy Story and the director of two Avengers films), seems to delight in stunning the viewer while withholding all but the sketchiest of rationales as an explanation. Here, that explanation comes from The Director (played by a surprise guest star whose name I should perhaps not reveal, although he/she remains a horror and sci-fi favorite), who fails to explain how these scientists have been operating in secrecy for so long, how these monstrous creatures have come about, why their, er, higher-ups insist on these proceedings, and many other bothersome questions. Thus, this is a film that works best as long as you don’t think about it too deeply, but rather, just go along for the undeniable thrill ride that it is.

And in truth, the film is well acted by all concerned, and is gripping and altogether dumbfounding. It is also extremely gory and violent, with a very high body count … actually, with what I should call a practically universal body count, as things turn out. It is thus decidedly not recommended for the squeamish viewer or those who are averse to the red stuff. The film, as mentioned, also contains much in the way of humor, both as far as amusing one-liners are concerned and in the sly acknowledgment of those hallowed horror conventions; thus, the five student archetypes, that gas station dude who serves as a sinister portent, the pot- and booze-fueled party in the cabin, the Latin reading and the rising of the zombies, the clever nods to the Japanese J-horror films of the early 2000s, etc. Interestingly, it is Marty here, the perpetually zonked stoner dude, who is the first to perceive a glimmering of what is going on, and who turns out to be something of a hero by the film’s end. And the sight of him fighting off those zombies with a drinking cup that instantly transforms into an oversized bong certainly is one to cheer.

When The Cabin in the Woods was initially released, its promotional poster sported the tagline “You Think You Know The Story.” It is a clever come-on, indeed, referring both to the fact that the film subverts and has fun with its horror film tropes, and the fact that the film does indeed pull the rug out from under the viewer’s expectations. It is a difficult film to write about without giving away any of the picture’s manifold secrets, and so I am currently trying to be coy here as I skip around the central conceit and attempt not to reveal any spoilers. Let’s just say that this is a film that has never even been considered for a sequel, despite its huge success, and I for one could not even imagine how a sequel would be possible, after the ending that we are given. One and done, but what a “one” this film is! You might walk away from the film scratching your head, but you are surely not likely to forget it…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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8 comments

  1. I will humbly and respectfully suggest that we weren’t the audience for this film, and the young people it was aimed at knew exactly what was going on. They didn’t have any doubts about whether these scientists are operating in secrecy from anyone other than the generation targeted. The whole thing is a bloody fable, after all, and I thought the Director DID explain that very clearly. The idea behind the film isn’t new–it’s just scathingly played out here with a critique of slasher horror films as a bonus.

    At least, that’s my opinion.

    • Jana Nyman /

      I agree! I think the Director (a phenomenal casting choice, by the way) explained everything very clearly, and the set-up exposition from the other characters filled in all the other blanks quite nicely. :)

      • Sandy Ferber /

        Oh, there were blanks left unfilled, and plenty of them. Just as there were in Goddard’s “Lost” and “Cloverfield.” Not nearly enough explication…for me, anyway.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Those younger people must have a better imagination than me, then. I needed to know more….

    • Well, I don’t want to commit spoilers, but I suggest this; think about all the darker things we know about American history now that somehow was never covered in history when we were in school because it didn’t support our picture of America. Or think of things we find out are happening right now to people via Twitter, or a blog or a book, because they aren’t being covered by conventional news sources because they’re inconvenient to face. Now, imagine there’s a worldwide conspiracy.

      • Sandy Ferber /

        Again, I didn’t want to have to make up my own story. I wanted the facts, the background poop. Too much for some screenwriters to bother with, I’m afraid….

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