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“The Cabin in the Woods” is a Puzzle From Beginning to End

April 23, 2012

By John C.

From the delayed distribution to the almost deafening buzz that built up in the few months before its actual release, The Cabin in the Woods is a puzzle of a movie that keeps turning in on itself right from the opening scene.  Just like the ingenious poster, this is a visually captivating horror film that manages to thrill us with an unexpected story that turns convention on its head.  Even for those of us who aren’t usually big into horror movies, this one is very easy to admire.

I was going to write about The Cabin in the Woods last Monday to directly follow the film’s opening weekend, but decided to give my thoughts an extra week.  Now we can add another piece to the puzzle because the critical darling didn’t register in a big way with audiences on its second week at the box office, making this an interesting Hollywood story about hype that is wrapped around a thoroughly satisfying genre trip.

The set up to the story seems simple, as we follow five college friends who all fall into typical horror movie clichés and go for a weekend to stay at an abandoned cabin in the woods.  There’s the athletic Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the promiscuous Jules (Anna Hutchison), the intelligent Holden (Jesse Williams), the perpetually stoned Marty (Fran Kanz) and the token virgin Dana (Kristen Connolly).  But there’s also a mysterious control room where everyone is dressed in white shirts, with Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) controlling our five protagonists on a variety of TV screens, while taking bets on which one will get killed first.  I won’t spoil where the film ends up past this basic premise that is set up within the first few scenes, but the last act takes some unexpected metaphysical turns.

The film quickly becomes a literal and sometimes darkly comedic house of horrors that keeps topping itself in the gory images department, but those looking closer will also find something deeper as it introduces philosophical questions about fate and free will.  Are the heroes of the story making decisions based off their own beliefs, or are they being controlled by puppeteers who are pulling the metaphorical strings?  It’s clear that the men in the white coats represent writers and directors, thinking up elaborate deaths that serve as natural consequences to choices made by the characters.  The whole film could also be viewed as a study of why people watch horror movies, asking worthwhile questions about how far we should really be going when it comes to satisfying the bloodlust of a hungry audience.

After sitting on a shelf for three years due to financial troubles and scheduled release dates that wouldn’t have done it any justice, director Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods has been eagerly anticipated by horror fans and couldn’t have come at a better time.  Chris Hemsworth has become a household name after starring in last year’s mega blockbuster Thor, and co-writer Joss Whedon is gearing up for the release of his highly anticipated directorial debut, The Avengers opening on May 4th.  But some casual viewers might not even realize these intrinsic connections between this little horror movie that could, as well as one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.

I’m not surprised by the fact that many critics have at least admired The Cabin in the Woods, but what makes it even more of a puzzle is the fact that many audiences haven’t taken to it the same way.  With a lot of modern horror movies, it’s been the other way around.  Perhaps those looking for straight up scares weren’t expecting the deeper story at play, while some mainstream audiences didn’t know how to react when faced with the thoroughly unexpected final twenty minutes and the many twists on typical genre conventions.  But it’s already safe to assume that the film will live on as a cult classic, especially once it becomes available on the home market.

Among the most surprising things about The Cabin in the Woods is that it starts revealing plot twists right from the opening scene, and still manages to pull off quite a few shocks in the gory and insane last act.  This is a horror movie that also plays as an existential drug trip, safely satisfying the bloodlust of those who seek this sort of thing, while at the same time providing a thrilling and surprisingly intelligent night at the movies for everyone else.

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