Joss Whedon’s “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012): a Horror Cliché Mega-Spoof
Written and produced by Joss Whedon (with director Drew Goddard and John Swallow, respectively), this film generated great expectations among his fans (including me). In my opinion, Whedon, Goddard, and their cast and crew do not disappoint. This movie takes a well-worn horror story-line — five young people who go to a secluded location to engage in sex, drug use, and other shenanigans and are therefore “punished” for their behavior by supernatural forces or beings — and turns it into a paranoid thriller involving a human conspiracy. Symbolic of this improvisation on a traditional horror theme, Sigourney Weaver, the queen of science fiction horror with a political twist, makes a cameo appearance in the third act to fill a key role. Simultaneously, it is also a parody of just about every horror movie cliché imaginable.
The opening scene introduces the main characters in the conspiracy subplot: Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford). However, they are depicted as two wise-ass, middle-aged engineers who are the project leaders of a significant company-wide operation. The connection with the five young people, who haven’t even appeared on screen yet, is unclear.
The five, all university students, are Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Holden (Jesse Williams), Dana (Kirsten Connolly), and Marty (Fran Kranz). These are deliberately stereotypical roles: slut, jock, scholar, “virgin,” and fool. These stereotypes are an important plot device, not a rehashing of tired types. The cabin in the woods to which they go on their outing is reminiscent of the one in Fede Alvarez’ remake of Evil Dead (2013).
Through the students’ encounter with Mordecai (Tim De Zarn) at a ramshackle gas station on the way to the cabin, the viewer already knows that the cabin has a supernaturally evil history. The human side of the horror is also foreshadowed before they arrive at their destination. As the students’ RV enters a mountain tunnel (the only way in or out of the cabin site), the camera pans up to follow a hawk soaring above them. Suddenly, the bird is obliterated as it flies into an unseen force field.
Once their victims have arrived at the cabin, it is Sitterson and Hadley’s job, carried out along with their team from a remote location, to get them to go into the cellar. This sets the stage for the first jump scare in a long while that has made me actually jump. Once in the downstairs scenario, the five have limited free will — they get to choose (unwittingly) how they will die.
Fortunately, Marty’s paranoid nature (likely enhanced by his heavy pot smoking) comes in handy, as he is the first to suspect that “puppetmasters” are controlling their environment. After a few predictable deaths, the world of the surviving “puppets” collides with that of the puppetmasters in the third act, unleashing almost every kind of horror villain and monster that a fan can imagine. We discover that the entire scenario is a “ritual” that involves stakes much higher than the lives of five young Americans.
Throughout the movie, there is plenty of humor that provides not only good entertainment, but also distraction from a plot that could become tedious without it. The sight gags begin with Marty’s telescoping bong in the first act. There is also situational humor, especially during the monster mash in the third act. My favorites, however, are the parodies. Japanese horror films are spoofed in a parallel sub-plot, while elements of The Matrix appear in the concluding scenes.
This film’s quality is reflected by the honors that it won, including an Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (USA) Saturn award for Best Horror/Thriller Film and four Fangoria Chainsaw Awards (Best Wide-Release Film, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Kranz), and Best Makeup/Creature FX (David LeRoy Anderson).