Looking back, we’ve never left 2012 when it comes to blockbuster films. 2012 was one of the biggest game changing years for movies, giving us The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, Prometheus, the end of the Twilight saga, and the beginning of The Hobbit and The Hunger Games. Of course, the biggest film of the year was The Avengers, relaunching the age of the shared universe we see today. Some smaller films were left by the wayside, including The Cabin in the Woods, conveniently co-written and produced by problematic Avengers director, Joss Whedon. Originally slated for a 2010 release date, The Cabin in the Woods was indefinitely shelved after MGM financially went under, until it was picked up for release by the house that Saw built, Lionsgate. After a screening at the 2012 SXSW festival, the film was finally released proper on April 13th. This was less than a month before the release of Avengers, and probably contributed to its minimum profitability at the box office. Despite that, The Cabin in the Woods did receive general critical acclaim and positive word of mouth that helped gain an audience. Usually, this would be the start of cult classic...
Described as a “love/hate letter” to horror, the film, on the surface, is a send up of The Evil Dead and Friday the 13th (they could have called this film The Cabin by the Lake). Literally, from the beginning, we’re introduced to white collar tech engineers in an underground complex directly below the titular cabin. Two plots are set up; primarily an office comedy about these engineers tasked with a “life or death” assignment from their bosses, and your usual weekend getaway with a group of college kids, who are actually smarter than their genre tropes. However, the whole trip is a ruse concocted by an organization to bring the characters to a ritual site where “giant evil gods” lay dormant.
It’s set up so that the entire game is rigged to an extent. The engineers control the very air on this site, pumping gases through vents to make the cabin visitors more susceptible to the tropes they must play into. As long as four out of the five college kids die and the final girl’s fate is left in question, there’s balance in the world and the gods are happy. After meeting a creepy gas station attendant along the way, the kids finally settle in. They’re lured into the basement where multiple objects peak their curiosity and determine the horror scenario they’ll fall victim to. While the office workers place their bets, the kids go for the “redneck torture family” scenario as the final girl finds a journal from the Buckner family and reads it aloud. Also, did I mention that one member of the group is a stoner who’s smoking so much pot that he’s immune to the gases seeping in and can hear the subliminal messages the engineers are feeding them? He’s having none of it.
The diary reading awakens a family of zombie killers and the surface plot seems to go off without a hitch, save for an impressive death set piece with an invisible electric fence. The final girl is left to meet her fate, but the stoner emerges to “save the day,” after killing a zombie that dragged him away earlier. Somehow, nobody notices that hundred-year-old zombie blood is being collected for the ritual. Anyway, the stoner discovers an elevator, which brings him and the final girl to the compound below. Here, they find and unleash every other scenario on the compound, in what is the best scene of the film, any film. It’s a short, but satisfying gorefest with every monster imaginable unleashed on everyone in the complex who is left. This is what people really remember about this film and for good reason. When all else fails, the two survivors confront the director of the organization who begs them to complete the ritual. Divine intervention from a werewolf and one of the Buckners prevents that, and the film ends with the two remaining characters joking about how ridiculous the set-up was as the world ends around them.
On a technical level, this film looks amazing, courtesy of frequent Sam Raimi and David Lynch cinematographer, Peter Deming (who also shot Evil Dead II). Couple that with frequent Whedon editor, Lisa Lassek, and you wouldn’t believe this was director Drew Goddard’s first film. The film is well-paced for both the humor and scares, holding some shots longer for extra effect. There’s great use of cutaways to the commentary of the engineers, and even a cool John Carpenter-esque static long take where a killer comes in and out of the background during a character’s monologue.
As far as effects go, The Cabin in the Woods fairs even better. Some CGI looks a little dated in some shots during the climax, but it’s still an impressive feast that warrants frequent rewinds to take it all in. Practical effects deserve major praise, courtesy of AFX Studio co-founded by A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Heather Langenkamp and her husband, David LeRoy Anderson. The film is a great mix of style, as well as substance.
The substance in question, though, may detract from the film. Cabin in the Woods’ story is pretty air-tight. The way the surface story unfolds only seems to work in accordance with the Buckner family scenario, considering the torture room hidden in the basement of the cabin. It makes me wonder how the film would have played out if the writers got creative with the creatures on stand-by: the merman, the scarecrows, the mechanical scorpion, any of them. How would this have worked if Goddard and Whedon hadn’t played it safe? Hell, there’s even a hypothetical scenario with a killer snowman, and these engineers can most likely control the weather in this place. What we get a taste of in the climax could have fueled so many cool movies. The film establishes the engineers and their role before the surface plot, so the film could have been as outlandish as it wanted to and the climax would have still worked. But the story has to stick to the convention it was riffing for as long as it did.
Characterwise, The Cabin in the Woods follows the horror tradition of primarily casting unknown television actors, save for a technically pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth who plays the athlete/sociology major. The leads are established to be genuinely friendly with one another early on, like they’ve actually been friends for years, but gradually turn into their tropes under the influence of the engineers. Speaking of the engineers, the real stars of the film would be Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. These two have the best chemistry and they convey a sense that they have worked together for years at this job, behind desks. Their banter is dark and dry to back that up, but they’re so committed to their roles that you find yourself rooting for them. I mean, they’re giving us what we want, right? The audience wants these college kids to suffer for their amusement. And at the end, the one and only Sigourney Weaver joins in, as the director, in a twist reveal. You really can’t go wrong with Sigourney no matter how little screen time she has.
The Cabin in the Woods is a fine movie on first viewing. However, outside of the lab scenes, there’s very low re-watch value on this one. The film says all it needs to say by the end, and nothing says finite like Armageddon. Sure, you’re left with questions, like how this organization was started, but who knows if the creators even had that in mind. The film is stylish enough for you to turn your brain off and believe it’s as clever as the film thinks it is. The real tragedy is that the film doesn’t have much else to offer once the credits roll. All stops were pulled with the awesome ending. Thus, this is why Cabin in the Woods hasn’t earned the badge of “cult classic.” At least not yet. A few years down the road this film may garner a true rediscovery as the genre continues to evolve. Until then, the creators seemed to have washed their hands of it.
What’s really crazy is the career of the film’s director, Drew Goddard. This guy has talent, yet he has had one bumpy ride so far. He started as a television writer, Goddard has worked on the series of both J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon: contributing to the later seasons of Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Lost. From that background, he transitioned well as a screenwriter, penning the 2008 sleeper hit, Cloverfield, and later, 2015’s The Martian, of which he received an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.
As a director, though, he has hit some snags. The Cabin in the Woods was stalled for over two years, due to unforeseen studio bankruptcy. I feel that hindered the film’s popularity. Later, Goddard was hired to showrun Netflix’s Daredevil, but left after scripting the first two episodes when Sony offered him The Sinister Six, which would have tied into their then Amazing Spiderman series. That unfortunately fizzled out, along with a rumored X-Force film for FOX. FOX did, however, produce Goddard’s sophomore feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, an original Hitchcockian noir thriller with an ensemble cast. Both these directorial efforts show Goddard’s technical talents as a filmmaker, and his ability to get great performances of actors, veteran and unknown. Sadly, Bad Times also underperformed at the box office, so who knows when we’ll see another film from Goddard. Hopefully when that day comes, the “third time will be the charm.” I’ll wait patiently for that day. I do wish Goddard the best.
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