The Cabin in the Woods is one of the most unforgettable horror movies you will ever see. Though, that’s not to confuse it with one of the absolute best horror movies you will ever see. Now, adding that caveat is not to imply that the film, written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (and directed by the latter), isn’t good enough to be one of the best horror movies you’ll ever see, it’s just that it needs the kind of perspective only years can give before anyone throws that kind of grandiose praise on it. But unforgettable, that’s indisputable.
Why this immediate need to figure out Cabin’s place in the horror hall of fame? Can’t a movie just be good for the here and now? Of course, and Goddard’s film is excellent for the here and now; a breath of fresh, fun, bloody air that rejuvenates enthusiasm for a genre niche that hasn’t changed its formula in decades. But what separates Cabin from any other release in recent years is that its entire premise is indeed built upon decades of other horror films. It aims from frame one to be in the pantheon. Everything Cabin does is a calculated, analytical move made to guarantee that when people talk about horror movies about co-eds trapped at a cabin in the woods, it demands to moderate the conversation.
The film finds a group of attractive, socially diverse college friends (Chris Hemsoworth as the jock, Kristen Connolly as the gal next door, Anna Hutchison as the blonde, Jesse Williams as the token black guy and Fran Kranz as the pothead geek) heading out to the middle of nowhere to get away from the world for a weekend. All the ominous signs audiences have come to expect start cropping up, though the gang is oblivious to such omens. They also have no idea that another group of people, led by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, have grand designs for how to end their pretty little lives.
What follows is equal parts love letter to and reinvention of movies that always find a group of 20-somethings stopping off at a gas station before cutting themselves off from the world. And though they won’t be outlined here in order to preserve your enjoyment, the way in which Goddard and Whedon celebrate, destroy and rebuild their genre doesn’t come as some kind of shocking, last-act twist. The Cabin in the Woods lays its atypical intentions on the table at the beginning and then takes the audience on an increasingly creative and diabolical ride that culminates in one of the most riotously entertaining moments you will ever have in a movie theater– especially if you’re a genre junkie. If you are, watching Cabin is like mainlining a designer horror drug.
Of course, the film’s one-of-a-kind script wouldn’t be nearly as spirited without a cast capable of supporting its devilish highs. On the co-ed end, Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz know just how to play up every ounce of wide-eyed terror, but the real show stealers here are Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. They are the gears upon which the entire movie rotates and never once do they falter. Without their remarkable ability to be hilarious, intimidating and bored all at once, the entire tone of the movie would be thrown off and the only thing that would work are the visual gags (of which there are plenty). Thankfully, though, they make it all look effortless and allow for the myriad of genre machinations at play to spin and turn with nary a stutter.
With all this talk of the expert ways in which the film understands and operates within its own genre, it should be made perfectly clear that Cabin is not something only genre junkies will enjoy. It’s not the type of film that name checks every title it’s influenced by, nor is it concerned with testing your horror knowledge. If you’re the type of fan who can pick up on all the influences, all the better, but they’re not a prerequisite to “getting” the movie. And that’s ultimately what makes Goddard’s directorial debut such a unique and singular accomplishment. It’s too damned smart and entertaining, its sheer passion and joy for telling this story too virulent to not invade and conquer anyone who enters The Cabin in the Woods.