An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · March 9, 2019, 7:29 PM EST
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Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on March 9, 2012, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Like Scream, The Cabin in the Woods is going to be mistaken by some people for a spoof of the genre. It’s not; like the Wes Craven film, it’s a straightforward horror feature that happens to have a good, satirical sense of humor about itself. This one goes beyond honoring just one subspecies of fright to become a wildly entertaining catch-all homage to the cinema of fear as a whole—it’s like all your favorite horror movies wrapped up in one.

The central reference is, of course, the Evil Dead films, and this specific cabin in the woods bears a remarkable resemblance to the one in Evil Dead II. (They even got that movie’s cinematographer, Peter Deming—who also, perhaps not coincidentally, shot the Scream sequels.) A few more visual touchstones from the Sam Raimi series show up as well, and eventually, so do scary characters clearly modeled on other popular franchises. (There’s even a bit that suggests a visual homage to distributor Lionsgate’s grinding-gears logo, though the company only got involved with Cabin after its completion.)

But first, we meet our five college kids in an RV, who are even more of a Scooby Gang than the one producer/co-writer Joss Whedon showcased in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s a smart, redheaded good girl (well, maybe not entirely so good; she’s just coming off an affair with a teacher) named Dana, played by the instantly lovable Kristen Connolly; handsome jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth, demonstrating the good-natured macho charisma that served him well in Thor); his bubbly blonde girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison); brainy nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), with whom Jules wants to set up Dana; and shaggy burnout Marty (Fran Kranz, stealing the movie), whose brains may not be as fried as they first appear.

Needless to say, on their way to a remote cabin owned by Curt’s cousin, the fivesome first stop off at a dilapidated gas station where the attendant is a threatening creepy guy resembling a close cousin of Saw’s Tobin Bell. And naturally, they don’t heed this warning of bad times to come, innocently traveling on to the old place for what they think will be a weekend of swimming, toking and hooking up. Nor are they witness to a subsequent sign that there’s more to their destination than meets the eye (a wonderful little portentous moment that’s unfortunately revealed in the trailer, so try not to watch that if you haven’t already).

The movie tells us right away that this won’t be your typical cabin-in-the-woods movie, though, as the title blares on screen over a shot of two suited businessmen, Steve (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Bradley Whitford), wandering through their workplace discussing the banalities of their lives and jobs. What could these two office drones have to do with the impending plight of our young leads? That’s the secret of Cabin in the Woods’ success as a film that doesn’t just deconstruct the horror genre, but builds it back up into something that takes all the familiar ingredients and cooks them into a movie that feels fresh, exciting and totally freakin’ awesome.

The trick for Whedon and director/co-writer Drew Goddard was to both celebrate and subvert the conventions of the form in a way that keeps you smiling at their deviousness while taking the fates of the characters seriously. In that, they’ve succeeded splendidly; no matter how much humor there is to be found in their tweaking of youth-horror standards, the film never loses its sympathy for the frightened and bloodied victims, with scene after scene eliciting both nervous, anticipatory laughter and genuine tension and terror. The charismatic performances by the central quintet are a major asset, perfectly counterbalanced by Jenkins and Whitford’s dead-on deadpan as they go about their morbid tasks as if they worked in a financial office. The supporting cast is chock full of familiar and surprise faces, from a few Buffy and Angel veterans to ubiquitous genre child actress Jodelle Ferland.

The non-human ensemble, meanwhile, is the work of David LeRoy Anderson and his large and talented crew, who unleash the biggest makeup FX blowout for a movie on this scale in recent memory, and really paint the walls red when the action starts heating up. The more their creations stalk and shriek and splatter across the screen, the more you can feel that Whedon and Goddard aren’t just taking off on a popular genre but really love this stuff, and it shows in their plotting as well. As they spring one surprise after another, you can almost see them sitting at their keyboard, delighting in taking their scenario off in directions the audience won’t expect.

One more Evil Dead reference: Back when the original came out, Bob Martin wrote in Fango’s pages, “Since I started editing this magazine, I have not seen any new film that I could recommend to our readers with more confidence that it would be loved [and] embraced…if you’ve had trouble finding a film that would scare you, thrill you and give you one hell of a coaster ride…this is it.” Speaking in terms of 21st-century movies, I can pretty confidently say the same thing about this one. It’s this simple: If you love horror, you’re gonna love The Cabin in the Woods.