Once upon a time, there was a movie called Scream, which presumed to upend the horror genre and divest it of its clichés. This it did to the ungodly profit of all involved, a fact that eventually transformed it into the very product it once so fiercely condemned. It also evinced a troubling contempt for the genre and its fans: aiming hateful barbs where knowing mischief was required. Nevertheless, it set the tone for horror movies in the 90s and remains the final word in self-referential slasher send-ups.
The Cabin in the Woods delivers the basic Scream idea with ten times the wit and panache. It approaches horror from a loving and affectionate place where its predecessor displayed only sneering contempt. Its creators mock the grisly staples of the genre the way only intimate film lovers could, infused with boundless imagination and a scenario that – damn it to hell – I can hardly describe without giving the whole thing away.
Shall I try? I can try. There’s a cabin. In the woods. Horrible things once happened there, and have apparently been happening there for some time. A quintet of dipshit college students arrives for a weekend getaway and things get grim. Each victim seems to conform to easy stereotypes – the slutty blonde, her virginal friend, the douchey jock etc. – but even before they show up, strange details curl around their shopworn edges. The jock possesses a strong knowledge of economic theory, the virgin just got out of a disastrous tryst with one of her professors, the blond is only a blonde because of a recent dye job, etc. It’s almost as if something is trying to fit them into easy molds: reducing their human complexities to quick clichés for the purposes of…
Okay, I’ve said too much. Everyone knows exactly how this weekend will go and The Cabin in the Woods resolutely meets our expectations. We see a thousand trappings from a thousand earlier horror movies: particularly The Evil Dead, which clearly donated its vacation home for this flick. But even as the protagonists start dying off in thoroughly predictable fashion, a far more complex mechanism kicks into gear, and turns the emptiest of all possible genre exercises into a work of subversive genius.
Director Drew Goddard worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and co-wrote the screenplay here with his mentor Joss Whedon. Their signature wit is on full display, but harnessed to more than just making us chuckle. They delve deeply into the fundaments of the genre, asking not just why we enjoy it but what needs it fulfills in us. Does it help us vent our own demons? Is that why we often root for the monster? Is our identification with the victims masochistic? Are we purging our own fears in the process? Scream and its ilk had no interest in such issues. It just riffed on the Meta and let things be. The Cabin in the Woods puts the Meta on full display – with in-film references to audience expectations and the way we’re simultaneously comforted and exasperated by knowing what will happen next – but actively studies it instead of simply acknowledging its existence.
More importantly, it treats the audience like a trusted friend rather than an object of ridicule. Whedon and Goddard share our love for horror movies, but also our frustration at those numerous occasions when they let us down. Their critique thus comes from a place of absolute devotion – like all great satirists – and their attacks carry real bite in the hopes of improving their target. “Monster movies can and should do better,” The Cabin in the Woods tells us before following up with a surprisingly insightful examination of the genre’s psychological foundations.
It does all that in the context of one of the wildest roller coasters you’ll ever experience. The final act, in particular, attains a deranged genius that has to be seen to be believed, and should cement its status as an instant classic. My entire career as a film critic is predicated on experiences like The Cabin in the Woods: movies that upend everything we think we know and rearrange it in entirely new ways. The greatest horror film since Silence of the Lambs? Yeah, I’ll make that claim. The greatest horror film of all time? Perhaps not, but you can at least broach the question without getting laughed out of the room. Anyone who presumes to love horror movies needs to see The Cabin in the Woods; you’ll never look at a slasher flick the same way again.