It is impossible to talk about “The Cabin in the Woods” without revealing the sinister, strange tricks it has up its sleeve. Cutting to the root of the genre, the film begins as an uninspired riff on horror mythology as five teenagers — the jock, the blonde bimbo, the smart guy, the stoner, the virgin — blissfully, ignorantly, embark on a camping trip in the woods. This setup started with Sam Raimi’s 1981 schlocky debut “The Evil Dead” about merry teens being possessed by demons. But what happens in this particular “Cabin” is as far removed from that as possible, in the best and worst way. To say more would spoil the surprises of this movie, but a hint: some involve Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as Goddard and Whedon stand-ins, pulling the strings of this flashy puppet show.
To write the movie off as pure pastiche betrays the originality of its contents. Writer/director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon’s devilish little dabble in genre monkey business is insanely clever, and insane. But its slick cleverness is not without its patience-testing toll.
Goddard and Whedon, who helmed the “Buffy” television series, know how to exploit horror cinema’s grab-bag to their own ends. It is easy to admire how the creative team not only systematically remakes a genre movie, but utterly deconstructs and destroys that genre. It is admirable, but also rather pleased with itself. A puzzle of manifold dimensions, the film’s self-reflexive, pensive conceit (in all senses of the word) chokes the life out of its characters and comes off as smug. We get it. You’ve seen a lot of horror movies, and now you want to make one.
“Cabin” rouses that horror fanboy insider-ness rarely happening anymore today. The audience let out a big fat whoop when Stoner Dude bludgeons an enemy with a retractable bong, as if he were Ash Williams with his chainsaw. This moment alone secures the film’s cult status.
However, in the process of crafting marionettes for their own amusement and debasement, Goddard and Whedon forgot to develop their characters. There is no humanity here, which, I suppose, is what happens when you reach such dizzyingly meta heights. Stuff that happens in “The Cabin” is crazy, and some of it is really, really crazy, but there comes a certain point where the level of ridiculousness plateaus. One of the film’s most memorable deaths occurs when the obtuse jock drives his motorcycle off a cliff and faceplants into an invisible wall that upon collision, sparks, revealing a honeycomb like pattern. I will say no more.
By the time “Cabin” delivers its big ejaculatory splat, all the narrative’s about-faces and smoke and mirrors seem so contrived and calculated that it’s hard to care. It’s not hard to follow but, rather, just easy to get bored and lost in all these levels upon levels of meaning(lessness).
In spite of this film’s grand ambitions and colossal failures, there’s a hard-won lesson to learn here. When you watch a contemporary horror film, you are seeing virtually every horror film ever made play out in front of you. In the curious case of “The Cabin in the Woods,” this is so much so, and often in very literal ways. Instead of trying to remake itself, or winking at horror movies past, as the genre seems to love doing lately — like “House of the Devil and “Drag Me to Hell,” which are both more skilled and more unhinged in heaving up references — why doesn’t horror just try to be scary for once? Now there’s a more back-to-basics approach.
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.