Theatrical Review: The Cabin in the Woods

I’m running a little behind on this one, I’d originally intended to post it last weekend, but unfortunately, personal circumstances came ahead of it. But still, better late than never…

As The Cabin in the Woods starts, were introduced to two technicians, Sitterson and Hadley, as they’re beginning to start their day. By their conversation, it all sounds like it’s going to be rather mundane, but as the title of the movie comes up, you certainly get the idea that there’s something way more to this than it seems. We immediately flash to a group of five college students who decide that they’re going to get away from it all for the weekend, literally heading to the titular cabin in the woods. but as they leave, we soon find out that they’ve been under some major surveillance and that aspects of their trip and preparations for it have been totally manipulated. As they get to the cabin, they realize that they’re getting way more than what they bargained for and both of the scenarios that we’ve been presented with are about to collide in a way that neither have expected.

Sorry if all of that sounds rather cryptic, but saying much more would lead into some major spoilers for this film, and I just don’t want to give too much away at the start of this review. The Cabin in the Woods comes to us from director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon who also collaborated on the story together. These guys certainly have geek street cred, having worked together on the Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and having separate credits like Goddard having been a writer on Lost and Alias as well as writing the movie Cloverfield and of course, Whedon also being responsible for such things as Firefly and Dollhouse as well as next week’s highly anticipated Avengers film. Lionsgate has been sitting on releasing this one for awhile, though I have to admit after seeing the trailer and knowing the pedigree here, I was certainly looking forward to it. Unfortunately, immediately after seeing it, I really wasn’t that thrilled by it, in fact, I just didn’t like it. Having had a week further to stew on this (and also having a chance to read an extensive interview with Goddard), I appreciate it more now than I did immediately after seeing it, but I still don’t think it’s that successful in getting it’s points across.

The Cabin in the Woods is some pretty ambitious meta-commentary from both Goddard and Whedon, not only on what they see as the state of horror films but also about the ideas of sending the young off to do the bidding of the old. It’s pretty apparent from the start that there’s some sort of master manipulation going on here. But, thanks to the rather snarky treatment that all of the characters and the situations get, it was hard for me to give a damn about either side and so the point for me was to see what exactly the punchline was at the end. And when it does get to the end, it does all get resolved, but to a point where there’s really no “pro” side to what they’re commenting on. Basically, if you look at the implications of it’s final moments, it’s not really saying much for the side of the young, at least from my point of view.

In the interview that I read with Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods was described as a love/hate letter to horror films. While I get Goddard’s points, they just didn’t come across to me in what I was being presented. To me, it’s points about horror films and it’s characters were more on the mocking and contemptuous side more than anything else with their “love” side being more confined to the film’s end and then still just not balanced enough.

And then there’s the characters… Each of the five college students are essentially playing two roles; pre- and post-manipulation. But the pre- side gets quite a bit short-changed, so much so that basically they all just blend together. Kristen Connolly plays the red-headed lead amongst the college kids, Dana, and she’s a bit on the dry side here, having me think that she was cast only because Felicia Day (a perennial Whedon favorite) just wasn’t available (and having said that, I think Day could’ve brought quite a bit more here). Fran Kranz (who played Topher in Whedon’s Dollhouse) plays everyone’s stoner friend Marty and is just too cartoonish to me, so much so that I had a hard time buying that the other kids would even be hanging out with him. It’s also worth noting that Chris Hemsworth is one of the college students having made this film before he ever played Marvel’s Thor character.

Faring better are the characters of Sitterson and Hadley played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford respectively. There’s certainly plenty of snark shown with these guys as well, but they have their moments where they do display the gravity of the situation that’s about to unfold and that certainly goes a long way. Giving them support, you have another perennial Whedon favorite, Amy Acker as a fellow tech and Brian White who plays security for this group. White stands out for me as he’s all-business in his part, and amongst the cast is the one who totally shows the importance of what’s about to go down. It’s also worthy of note that you do have a big-name actress (who’s a bit of a horror icon her own self) who comes in for a very important cameo.

There’s massive elements of The Cabin in the Woods that are very similar to parts of both the Angel and Dollhouse TV shows (specifically the Wolfram and Hart firm on Angel). The advantage that those shows have though, is that they had time to develop and here, it’s just shown as sketches more than anything else. I tend to think if we’d had just a little more time with the college students at the start and some more time with the organization behind this master plot, this could’ve been a lot more satisfying to me. As it stands, The Cabin in the Woods seems to me to be more concerned with it’s contemptuous lampooning more than anything else. I’m not adverse to this stuff getting fun poked at it all, but here it just went overboard and maybe some more serious development time would’ve helped to balance this better.

Again, I certainly appreciate The Cabin in the Woods more now than I did immediately after seeing it and I certainly admire the massive ambition that’s here. Compared to a lot of reviews I’ve been seeing, I’m in the minority on this one. I think it’s unsuccessful, but… I’m not going to discourage anyone from seeing this, and more, if you haven’t seen it yet and are of a mind to see it, I’d encourage you to do so. It may not have been successful to me, but there’s still some good ideas here and they very well might work for you.

By Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

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