Cabin in the Woods, the new collaboration between Buffyverse compatriots Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, positions itself as a cheeky deconstruction of the horror movie. At it’s very best moments, and they are plentiful, it achieves something more: it becomes a complete demolition of the genre. The audience is recast as malevolent forces of evil, demanding gory violence (mixed with a little sex, of course) as the only means of appeasement and creators become sadistic, jaded purveyors of mayhem who blandly keep the blood flowing. Whedon and Goddard co-wrote the film and Goddard directed, and the exuberance of each of them in rending the flesh of an entire, highly profitable subsection of filmmaking is evident in every frame. They don’t always transcend the cliches they mock, but there’s a intoxicating slyness to their joined effort.
The film’s very first scene exposes the conceit for anyone at all keyed in to meta tomfoolery, but it still seems unkind to expose the film’s secrets. Instead, it’s safe to share that there is a quintet of college kids who embark on a weekend of boozy, frisky debauchery in the deep, dark forest, taking up temporary residence in a remote cabin supposedly owned by one of the character’s unnamed cousins. What follows is frightfully familiar from dozens upon dozens of other films, as terrible omens are ignored, indulgances lead to grisly fates and their joined world goes careening apart as a direct result of their blithe meddling with forces they can’t possibly understand. They are beset by horrendous fates, except maybe for the virginal member of the group. Her death, in the grammar of the genre, is optional, as long as she’s the last one standing.
The sense of play is terrific, especially as the film moves into its lunatic third act. Rules are smashed like so many dirty windows in abandoned old shacks, as Whedon and Goddard essentially present the existential backstory for every horror story that ever was and ever will be. The film has a sharp satiric edge that moves it beyond mere snark (a skewering of modern Japanese horror films is especially inspired), a quality that is especially enhanced by the dry performances of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins in a couple of key supporting roles. Goddard, a first-time director, could have perhaps employed a little more visual inventiveness, and there are times when the limitations of the central actors, while oddly appropriate, shave away at some of the satisfaction of the layering. Overall, though, this is the blessed result when boundlessly clever people get the chance to create with spirited abandon. They simultaneously make horror films seem suddenly obsolete while presenting a sterling new addition to the genre.