The Cabin in the Woods: Burning Down the House of Horror

Five college kids go into the woods in Drew Goddard's directorial debut. What comes out? Pain-loving zombies, a wicked sense of Buffy-style humor and a film that finally shakes up the slasher-movie genre.

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Diyah Pera / Lionsgate

Fran Kranz

The less said about the plot of Drew Goddard’s fiendishly clever The Cabin in the Woods the better. I’ll give you just this: Five nice college kids head to a remote lakeside cabin for a fun weekend of swimming, smoking pot and messing around. They barely have time to engage in any of these activities before an unscheduled encounter with zombies wielding vintage carpentry equipment. Or maybe farm equipment. In any event, sharp things with many jagged, toothy blades.

If that sounds unappealing to you, we’re on the same page. But though it has elements in common with every movie that ever sent a batch of comely youngsters into the wilderness (for starters: The Ruins, Wolf Creek, Wrong Turn), The Cabin in the Woods is not strictly speaking, a slasher flick. It’s not even a horror movie exactly; the terror is minimal. In his first outing as a director, Cloverfield and Lost scribe Goddard, who co-wrote the film with his producer and old boss from television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon, has made a very gory critique of the blood lust, caricature and objectification of horror films. Cabin goes beyond the parody of the Scream franchise into darker, richer territory.

(MORE: Top 10 Ways to Survive a Horror Movie)

Goddard establishes a parallel story in the first frame of the film, featuring a pair of bored engineer-types at work in a bunker-like structure. Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) are preparing for some big event with the help of an anxious young woman in a lab coat (Amy Acker, from Whedon’s Angel), but it’s nothing so momentous as to distract Hadley from grousing about his wife and her obsession with her fertility treatments. This introduction is deliberately disorienting. Aren’t we here to see young people die in the woods? Isn’t that the point of most modern horror films?

Cue the pantless-for-no-good-reason young woman Dana (Kristen Connolly, who has the interestingly lush and squishy features of a young Uma Thurman). She’s packing to go away with her bubbly roommate Jules (Anna Hutchison), a potential new love match, Holden (Jess Williams) and their stoner pal Marty (Fran Kranz). Jules’ boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth, who shot this film before Thor) is taking them all to a remote cabin his cousin just bought. It’s off the grid, naturally. “It doesn’t even show up on the GPS,” crows Jules.

Goddard puts a new spin on the concept of the grid itself, and for once the obligatory exposition before the first gush of blood actually feels fresh. Respectively the quintet represents, with some qualifiers, the usual potential victims in horror films: virgin, whore, scholar, fool and at the wheel, the athlete. Only they’re all likeable and they don’t exactly fit their stereotypes: Dana slept with her professor; Jules only just went blonde and is pre-med; Curt is actually a sociology student on full scholarship and so on. None of them feel disposable, not even Marty, who turns up with a kaleidoscoping bong made out of a travel thermos and cracks wise throughout. “I dare you all to go upstairs,” he says when a game of Truth or Dare (of course) leads to an assembly of all five characters in the cabin’s super scary cellar.

Cabin gets seriously funny around the time a tobacco chaw-stained wretch – who the kids encounter at a dilapidated gas station – makes a phone call. (I won’t tell you whom he calls, except that the exchange on both ends is hilarious.) His name is Mordecai, but he’s blatantly referred to as the harbinger. Mayhem breaks out and the parallel plots veer into each other. There are winks to international styles of horror, including, most astutely, Japan’s fascination with spooky little girls, although the hillbilly horror of Cabin establishes it as definitively American. “If you want good product, you’ve got to buy American,” one character says. He sounds proud of Hollywood product, but the movie doesn’t share that pride. It doesn’t go quite as far in sending up Hollywood as it could have, or as much as I confess I wanted it to, but when the spokesperson for the Big Bad is called The Director (and is the best cameo this side of 21 Jump Street), a point is being made.

All this talk of comedy may suggest that Cabin is not violent. Let me be clear, it is. There is a decapitation, a death by hook through the neck and many examples of other awful ways to die. But even someone who has willingly sat through all seven installments of the Saw franchise may not be able to ignore the movie’s own stance that there is something wrong with the bloodshed — not just the enjoyment of it, but the numbing of our emotional response to it. The accompanying commentary isn’t exactly scolding, but it continually needles and raises questions. “You get used to it,” one character says of a gruesome death. “Should you?” asks another. What’s on trial here are the ridiculous rules of horror — that say, a whore (that’s in Limbaugh terms, i.e., a sexually active unmarried woman) is supposed to die while a virgin may live as long as she suffers — and what they say about our society.

(READ: TIME’s Richard Corliss on the Saw franchise)

That is, to put it mildly, exciting. But can Cabin be, as a promotional poster for it proclaims, a “game-changer”? Can any horror movie serve that purpose? Certainly the self-awareness of Scream reawakened interest in the genre and opened the door for the flat-out comedy of Scary Movie. Both franchises quickly grew tiresome, but they did shift our expectations of the genre temporarily before the torture porn of Saw took over. The Cabin in the Woods should stir some self-reflection. At the very least, it’s awfully entertaining and for Buffy fans, reason to put down the boxed sets and run off to the cinema.