The Cabin in the Woods is a film of such frothy geekery that watching it is like having a comic-book store dropped on your head. Well, the horror and sci-fi aisles, anyway. A genre mashup, a meta game, a doctoral thesis on directorial voice and audience identification, Cabin riffs on things like zombies and force fields as if they actually matter. Because, at least to these filmmakers, they do.
Writer-producer Joss Whedon and writer-director Drew Goddard have had their fingers in everything from television’s “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Lost” and Cloverfield. These guys love the genre tropes they’re playing with, enough to invest them with fresh wit and vitality, and to ask what their enduring appeal might say about film as an art form and us as an audience.
At its deceptive start, Cabin is something like an R-rated version of “Scooby-Doo.” On a break from college, a randy couple (Anna Hutchison and Chris Hemsworth), their brainy friend (Kristen Connolly), the token pothead (Fran Kranz) and a tagalong (Jesse Williams) take a weekend trip to the titular cabin. (I’ll let you decide which one of them is Scooby.) While there they encounter all sorts of oddness, including a grisly painting in one of the bedrooms that hides a one-way mirror. Stranger things begin to happen – if you ever come across the diary of a pioneer-era country girl, don’t read the Latin – until Cabin has left the plot conventions of its setup far behind and has launched into the wacko stratosphere.
How Goddard and company handle that one-way mirror is indicative of the picture’s cleverness. The mirror is first discovered by Williams’ Holden, who is given the chance to watch Connolly’s Dana undress in the next bedroom without her knowing. He stops her before the “money shot” and they agree to switch bedrooms, which then gives her the opportunity to ogle him. The whole sequence is an amusing play on both genre and gender expectations in terms of a horror flick, and causes us to consider who watches what and why in such films, not to mention why we’re watching as an audience.
Such questions are given extra resonance by the picture’s framing device, of which I’ll only mention a few bits. (Consider that a spoiler alert.) Cabin opens not on these kids, but with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as scientists of some kind working in a vast underground lab. (Their banter throughout the movie is priceless, but to share any of it here would be to give too much away; suffice it to say, Whitford’s character has an interesting take on mermen.) It’s clear early on that these two are connected to the happenings at the cabin, which raises the meta ante. Slowly, sneakily, Cabin has become a combination of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Truman Show. Are we in the audience the equivalent of the coeds, with the filmmakers in the controlling scientist role? Or are we the scientists, demanding that the coeds/filmmakers go through the familiar genre motions to please our base desires?
That Cabin prompts such questions while also managing a laugh-out-loud gag with a dismembered zombie hand makes it one of the most audacious films of the year. You don’t just sit down and watch The Cabin in the Woods; you subject yourself to a horror experiment.