The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods
The Cabin in the Woods
It began with “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie.” That was the stereotype that writer Joss Whedon subverted when he created Buffy Anne Summers; blonde, yes, but never the victim, for she was the latest in a long line of young women chosen to slay vampires. In the twenty years since Buffy’s first feature film appearance, Whedon has continued to break rules, cross borders and mash disparate genres together.

Unfortunately, another Whedon hallmark is the disruption that plagues his productions, from changes in the tone of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, the refusal to broadcast the pilot episode of Firefly, restructuring of the early episodes of Dollhouse and now the severe delay to the release of this feature, filmed in early 2009 and held in limbo due to financial troubles at original studio MGM before rescue late last year by Lionsgate. Fortunately the followers of his work are dedicated, and their patience be rewarded once again.

The loyalty of his fans is matched by Whedon’s own to his cast and crew, and many familiar names appear on the credits of The Cabin in the Woods: director and co-writer Drew Goddard worked extensively on Buffy, editor Lisa Lassek worked in the same capacity on Serenity among others, and on screen are Dollhouse’s Fran Kranz in a lead role as Marty with support from Angel’s Amy Acker and Buffy’s Tom Lenk.

Joining Kranz are Kristen Connolly as Dana, Anna Hutchison as Jules, Jesse Williams as Holden and Chris Hemsworth as Curt; together they take a trip to the titular cabin which belongs to Curt’s cousin. All the pieces are in place for a standard low budget slasher flick: the isolated setting with the trees and the lake, the creepy old guy at the gas farm with animal skins and the cabin itself, with its basement full of spooky antiques.

The setup of The Cabin in the Woods is nothing new, nor is the surveillance premise which is unfortunately revealed in the trailer; indeed, that is the point. What Whedon and Goddard set out to prove is that even such a basic and overused foundation can develop into an original story rather than the standard parade of gratuitous death scenes. So comfortable are they in playing with expectation, they allow an extended scene to run to its unavoidable conclusion with the whole audience fully informed how it must logically end, yet playing to their hopes that it might somehow end differently.

Far from undermining the horror genre, this film revels in it and delights in showing off specialist knowledge, from broad strokes encompassing the work of Romero, del Toro, Hooper and Dante to specific references to King, Nakata and Barker mixed with the taste of Lovecraft, an undercurrent of Whedon’s own earlier creations (coded spoiler – cross reference Angel 5×13 and BTVS season 4) and even a dash of The X Files (The line “We’re not who we are” is from the first season episode Ice, itself inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing), there is something to horrify and delight everyone.

Any quibbles are minor, and are a result of expectation rather than failings of the film. A hallmark of Whedon’s artistic associations is asking his actors to do something other than what they are associated with; thus while Amy Acker’s characters in both Angel and Dollhouse spent time wearing lab coats, they both became something very different, but while Acker’s presence here is welcome, as Dr Lin she never develops beyond that lab coat.

The other disappointment is the sheer weight of anticipation fuelled by marketing promises; while the film is certainly an improvement on the majority of horror films, and it is likely to be the best horror of the year, gleefully flipping between its parent genre and absurdity, it is not quite as smart or funny as had been hoped; while the laughs are there, they are not as frequent or sharp as they should be, and much of the secrecy surrounding the project is obviated by the hefty clues of the opening titles.

Whether audiences will respond to Whedon and Goddard’s dissection of post-modern horror remains to be seen; with a budget listed at $30M, it is likely the most expensive “kids go camping in the woods and get killed” film ever, but its true success will be measured in whether studios respond by supporting inventive original horror from literate and intelligent filmmakers or continue to grind out torture porn and amateur found footage sequels.

The Cabin in the Woods is released on Friday 13th April



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