Review by Matt Finley
Blood-drenched insanity! It's a hyperbolic turn of phrase that haunts my writing with face-palming ubiquity, but in the case of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, it's a wholly apt descriptor of the film's ultimate destination. Double apt if you consider that the movie itself is, among other things, a wildly energetic and hilarious meditation on ubiquity - specifically the dogged archetypes and tropes, from portentous doom-saying coots to virginal final girls, that coalesce and conjugate repeatedly to form the language of American fright. And bonus, for those suffering from the post-modern pococurantism AKA meta malaise - the self-referenciality is more fun puckish winking and nudging allusions (ala Edgar Wright) than dogmatic pop blather and head-clobbering references (ala Jaime Kennedy). In other words, an understanding of the dialectics of horror isn’t required. One need only enjoy gore-spattered witty rejoinders with the occasional mindfrack to spice up the excitement.
It bears mentioning that THE CABIN IN THE WOODS was co-written and directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel alum (and CLOVERFIELD scribe) Drew Goddard, who came late to the Whedonverse, but still managed to pen one of Buffy’s top episodes, Season 7's Conversations With Dead Things. Adding to the geeky fray, his writing partner on the film was Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon. So, Haters of Whedon's cutesy wit and overdeveloped sense of irony (and, believe it or not - they're out there), take note: you may cringe at some of the jokes. Straight up though, forgetting that I am, admittedly, a Jaynestown-shirt-owning member of Whedon's acne-scarred fanboy consortium – If, like me, you just doggone love horror for all its a gruseome glory and nagging, adorable illogic, know that, as I write this review, the Objective Critical part of me is trying to punch a Boreanaz-sized Ritalin tablet through Every Other Part of Me's goofy face because, Gee-Golly-Gorsh, I had so much friggin’ fun watching this movie.
From the word "go," CABIN introduces two sets of characters: a laboratory full of chop-busting weekend warriors bustling away at a mysterious project involving, among other clandestine affiliations, a chemistry department, a zoology division and a command station lousy with AV equipment; then there’s the folks the equipment is monitoring, a typical quintet of collegiate clichés prepared to chug, toke and snog their way to a remote cabin in the bucolic heart of nowhere. Revealing too much more would give away the game, which begins with a purposefully ho-hum EVIL DEAD knockoff and eventually escalates into one of the most gruesome, delightful and unapologetically over-the-top horror action sequences in recent memory.
For their part, the kids do a fine job of falling into archetypical slasher-victim roles (a point that's narrative importance becomes clearer as the plot progresses) – Kristen Connolly (As the World Turns) as Dana the heart-broken (“)virgin(”); Chris Hemsworth (THOR) playing Curt, the stein-hoisting jock; Anna Hutchinson (Shortland Street) as promiscuous blouse-doffer Jules; Jesse Williams (BROOKLYN’S FINEST) as booksmart Holden; and Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) playing Marty, a wake-and-bake casualty of Philosophy 101. The real champions of the piece, however, are lab captains Richard Sitterson (Bradley Whitford) and Steve “Honeytoes” Hadley (Richard Jenkins), who sardonically observe (and nefariously influence) the co-eds' skin-crawling plight with a bored macho confidence that Goddard makes a point to portray as uniquely American.
While much of the film's humor derives from a clever recontextualization of horror flick cliches that turn the illogical (e.g., "let's split up!") and the sensational (e.g., impulsive moonlit forest sex) into wholly explicable components of a narrative that's larger than the just the exploits of ripped and / or busty ax fodder, the laboratory scenes play on a theme with which Whedon fans are already gleefully familiar - the behind-the-scenes banality of the magical netherworld... the collar starch of evil. Angel's Amy Acker's presence as chemist Lin only adds emphasis to the anonymous lab's similarity to that show's perpetually politicking and bureaucratically stifling supernatural law firm, Wolfram and Hart. In CABIN, staged amid actual R-rated horror, the 9-to-5 aspect of the darkside plays funnier then ever.
The film's only major problems come in its final minutes, when, after the aforementioned blood-drenched insanity, everything slows to a crawl to exposit on plot points that Whedon and Goddard have already done such a good job of unveiling through deftly edited visuals (you can sotell that these guys moonlight as comic writers) and verbal implications, that most viewers are gonna feel condescended to, and maybe even a little bored. That the exposition is delivered as part of a sudden cameo appearance by an actress who portrayed one of the most iconic final girls in horror history (hint: she's appeared in a Whedon-penned project previously) only underlines its excessiveness (though it does up the fun quotient by several hecta-gnarlies).
More than just goofy, monster mashing jibes on slasher schtick and horror formalism, though,THE CABIN IN THE WOODS' overarching narrative asks larger questions about humanity's relationship with folklore, mythology and legends. Despite technological progress and the refinement of societal mores, we still ascribe gruesome mass to anonymous bumps in the night. While every culture crafts it own boogeymen, the structures and themes that comprise the viscera of these nightmares' narratives have remained consistent across media, miles and generations. Goddard's intention, however, isn't necessarily to celebrate this fact, but rather to question what modernity is worth if it limits individual identity, privacy and freedom, while still remaining beholden to the unbound wild dark that rushes through the deepest arteries of our collective memory, fed by the rolling echo of our ancestors’ fearful hearts. It also addresses some of the more pressing issues surrounding mermen, and the unexpected awesomeness thereof. (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)