So how is Joss Whedon’s other movie this year?
STARRING: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford
2012, 95 Minutes, Directed by: Drew Goddard
It would not be giving away too much to say things are not as they seem in The Cabin in the Woods . . .
After the opening credits, set against rough sketches of some sort of blood ritual, we’re presented with an ordinary scene: Two men standing at the vending machines in the break room of their workplace, talking about everyday things like the weekend and marital issues. That scene expands, and suddenly we’re confronted with a massive facility with metallic walkways and a tall convex roof, occupied by people in lab coats riding around in motorized carts to get to a large control room filled with monitors and protected by an apprehensive security guard.
This makes no sense, we think, because we just saw a credit sequence that proudly and assuredly announces this is supposed to be a horror movie. These people and this setting do not belong here.
What screenwriters Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard slowly unravel is that the real horror scenario is locked somewhere deep in the bowels of what at first seems to be a bait-and-switch. Everything we’ve come to anticipate as the actual setup for a genre exercise is, well, just an exercise.
Whedon and Goddard’s screenplay abounds with such blatant representations. That shadowy group of people in the control room is at once the audience, waiting with hushed eagerness for the next kill, and a kind of production crew, setting the scene so that what they and some unknown force want can come to pass. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but one that by its very nature implicates us. When a character suggests that a certain mythical creature might make an appearance, we’re simultaneously laughing at his disappointment when it fails to show up and subconsciously sharing in the regret.
We are far too ahead of ourselves here, though, and must get back to basics. The actual setup within the setup involves a group of college students. They are your basic types with just enough variation on the norm to make them more than lambs for the inevitable slaughter.
Dana (Kristen Connolly) is the quiet girl who’s more interested in studying than the social scene—the sort who packs textbooks in her suitcase for vacation (The “virgin,” if you will, though that descriptor draws a look of confusion from her when she’s confronted with it). This horrifies her friend Jules (Anna Hutchison), the ditzy blonde who’s only a blonde because she just dyed her hair, but impresses Jules’ boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the jock who can actually discuss the content of those books with Dana.
Curt’s cousin owns a cabin in the woods, and the friends have decided to spend the weekend there. Along for the ride are Holden (Jesse Williams), Curt’s friend whom Curt and Jules think would be a perfect romantic match for Dana, and Marty (Fran Kranz), the stoner with an active imagination for conspiracy theories (His collapsible bong made out of a travel coffee mug is a feat of engineering).
We’re treated to the usual scenes building up to the eventual showdown between the college kids and some supernatural force that will begin killing them off one by one. They stop at an abandoned gas station where the owner, whose name we later learn is—what else—Mordecai (Tim De Zarn), warns them of strange happenings up there in those there woods. The cottage is decorated in paintings of ritual animal killings, and one room has a two-way mirror. It’s as creepy as expected. There’s even a cellar door that opens for no apparent reason, and down the stairs is a menagerie of items: a diary with an ominous Latin phrase, a seemingly innocent music box, and an odd spherical puzzle, to name a few.
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of horror movies should be on to the game by this point, and Whedon and Goddard are smart enough to assume as much from us. The only remaining questions revolve around the motives of the two men in the control room (played with dry, been-there-done-that apathy by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) and why they are so intrigued by what appears to be a Japanese horror movie about a ghost haunting a group of schoolchildren (In a film filled with clever riffs on the genre, the payoff to that gag is perhaps the funniest).
Meanwhile, the college kids try to escape their fate against increasingly loaded odds, and the film manages to keep its characters likeable even as (and probably because) they serve as mouthpieces for the genre’s more predictable aspects. Goddard even pulls off that trickiest of jokes in which the setup is the punch line when one character is presented with a motorcycle, a deep chasm, and a swollen sense of his abilities.
The film manages not only to present the genre with knowing winks and give it a few necessary nudges but also treats it with undeniable respect. As the story of what’s brewing within that mysterious facility unfolds (The climax is like an explosion at a nightmare factory), the film suggests there is a primal need for tales of the macabre. In that regard, The Cabin in the Woods is almost reverent toward horror.