The wait is over. For three years the Joss Whedon penned/Drew Goddard helmed Cabin In The Woods languished on the shelf as MGM sorted out their messy financial situation. Worth the wait and brilliant in its execution, Cabin takes the elements of horror films that we as fans both express our love and exasperation for and tweaks them, rearranging the parts in such a manner that it may change the way we look at any horror film going forward. Even the opening scene which features an innocuous conversation between office drones Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford runs against expectations before the title smash cuts loud and large, filling the screen.
The tag line says it all: You think you know the story. A group of college aged friends/genre stereotypes set out for a weekend getaway at a remote cabin that's you guessed it: far off the grid, not listed on any map and a lonely place where cell phone signals go to die. We have our prototypical good girl Dana (Kristin Connelly), her outgoing best friend and bombshell Jules (Anna Hutchinson), the best friend's alpha male boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the new love interest Holden (Jesse Williams), and the goofy stoner tagalong buddy Marty (Fran Kranz). But once the friends arrive on the scene, we learn things are amiss. The two office drones mentioned earlier? They're part of a much larger, unnamed and shadowy organization that is pulling the strings behind the scenes, carefully maneuvering each player into position for a larger game they're unaware they are a part of.
To say much more than that is to spoil the joy that is Cabin In The Woods. Goddard explores the question we so often ask as genre fans-'Why the hell are these people acting so stupid?'-and does so in such a fun, creative way that you can't help but grin from ear to ear when watching how he lays his cards out. What if every move you made was dictated by the slightest detail, whether it be your hair product affecting your personality, or a random stranger behind the curtain manipulating the way moonlight spills between the tree line, inducing an amorous mood in a young couple?
While the idea that our characters' strings are being pulled by Whitford and Jenkins' crew seems to be a huge twist, it's spelled early on in the first act. The true surprises come from how our characters react, and as the film progresses, how far the Company's reach extends and what their motivations are to begin with. While many films take twists and turns, Cabin is the first film in a long time where I had zero idea which way it was headed by the third act, and resigned myself to just sit back and enjoy the breakneck pace it sets in the final course. Yet the twists never feel forced. While I couldn't see the next dot on the story's map, once I arrived, it was easy to look back and see how each move, each decision made justified the arrival. There are no cheats. By the time motivations are revealed you'll look at certain members of the cast in completey different ways.
Anyone who's been a fan of Whedon or Goddard's work in the past won't be surprised by this. The Mutant Enemy fingerprints are all over the film, and the evolving mythology reminded me of two aspects of the Buffyverse, just more fleshed out and with a much larger scope to play with. The barracks that house the puppet masters draws comparisons to The Initiative in the fourth season of Buffy, just give much more leeway with the budget than the fledgling WB network could afford. Further, fans of the spinoff show Angel will get immediate flashbacks to the law firm of Wolfram & Hart, which served as the primary behind the scenes antagonist throughout the show's run. Like Jenkins and Whitford's social engineers the firm's lawyers, mystics and shamans expended all their energy guiding the champions in place in order to trigger specific events without our heroes knowledge.
It's obvious from the way Goddard and Whedon play with the many cliches in horror that they have tremendous knowledge of and passion for the genre. The basement scene alone, where our group stumble upon a cornucopia of standard “cursed” artifacts (shelves filled with creepy dolls, a puzzle box, a charmed necklace and a diary filled with cryptic passages and a Latin incantation) is brilliant in the way its framed, lit, shot and plays out not only in the basement but the scene it sets off back in command central is worth the price of admission on its own. Cabin packs its runtime with all the trappings we've seen before-the creepy hillbilly gas station attendant, the unkillable monster, the couple that wanders off to have sex and is punished for it-yet nothing plays out in the exact manner we've come to expect. It's a film we as horror fans have waited for for a long time as it lets us poke fun at ourselves for caring about this material so passionately yet also reminds us why horror is so important.
In the end it's not so much that Cabin In The Woods breaks new ground as much as it backtracks over previous footsteps, then heads out in a direction just slightly askew from the main path. It's certainly a film enjoyed by knowing as little as possible about it before heading in, yet is also infinitely rewatchable. When the year's end rolls around, expect to see this near the top of many lists.