Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods rests on the cusp of something radical, coyly dangling between total self-awareness and genre indulgence, but not firmly landing on either. It's the reason the film is at once astronomically more fascinating and ambitious than most big-studio films and sadly unsuccessful in its goals when all the dust has settled. It unfurls through a cynical satirical lens on the business of making modern horror, but the genre facets it so giddily and entertainingly lampoons—the intense stupidity and lust of young Americans, torture-porn theatrics, ham-fisted and heavy-handed foreshadowing—are presented with only a half-measure of critical distance, even as it introduces a remarkably clever and very funny device for such distancing.
The film opens in the thick of this very device's setup as two drones (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) at an unnamed, busy office complex discuss an upcoming office gambling pool and the quotidian minutia of married life. Detailed nicely, but (smartly) never explained in any logical terms, the complex is the key element and critical distancing device that screenwriters Goddard and Joss Whedon use to dissect a host of modern horror tropes. Whitford and Jenkins's characters are in charge of manning an enormous, ridiculously powerful console that controls the eponymous cabin and much of the surrounding landscape. So, when a pack of college students—Curt (Chris Hamsworth), Dana (Kristen Connolly), Marty (Fran Kranz), Jules (Anna Hutchison), and Holden (Jesse Williams)—show up at the titular complex-controlled cabin for a weekend of sex, drugs, and booze, they become mere rodents sniffing around a precisely built and easily executable set of mouse traps.
In a way, Goddard and Whedon's script reintroduces an element of genuine humor and looseness that's been sorely lacking in modern horror, which, at this point, is largely at once both grim and self-serious, and bold-faced in its total absence of originality. That Goddard and Whedon take a cynical, partially absurdist view of such sadistic tendencies in the genre isn't surprising, though they only seem to take it so far. As much as they indulge wildly in this element of remove, they still enjoy taking in the pain and slaughter of at least three of the students without any critical eye. In this, they slide away from what at first feels like a robust satire of wholesale filmmaking and toward a moral lecture complete with finger-pointing/wagging.
This misstep is nearly forgivable in the face of the film's climactic turn, which is instigated by the revelation that the slaughter of these youths is done as sacrifice to some unidentified angry lords. And then the shit really hits the fan: Dana and alpha-stoner Marty infiltrate and unleash hell on the unnamed complex by opening the cages of the innumerable legions of ghosts, robots, monsters, and murderers that Whitford and Jenkins's characters had at their beck and call. And if this frenzied image of hundreds of monsters chowing down and slicing up every inhabitant of the complex offers rousing catharsis, it's also empty catharsis made doubly irksome since it suggests an elemental fault in the humanism that initially makes Whedon and Goddard's script so intriguing.
This is to say that the heart of the film's inarguable fascination and cleverness is almost entirely due to the script. Goddard proves a competent filmmaker, but he never convincingly melds the element of criticism with the text-within-the-text horror plot being analyzed. The twists provided to the plot are funny enough: Curt is a genius in jock clothing, Dana is just coming down from an affair with her professor, and Kranz's Marty becomes a more successful hero than his conventional-looking brethren. But the cleverness of these twists isn't a tease for actual originality or even a unique aesthetic reimagining (or revamp) of these machinations. Indeed, the film seems made-to-order for viewers who see themselves as "above" the horror genre and yet are closeted fans, finding themselves regularly seduced by the genre's more sadistic, malicious, and yes, worst attributes. As such, The Cabin in the Woods qualifies as something of a guilty pleasure, the emphasis being on the guilt rather than the pleasure.
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Lionsgate knows how to roll out the red carpet when it needs to, in terms of Blu-ray transfers, and The Cabin in the Woods has certainly garnered a high level of attention in the A/V department. Colors are clean and bold, from the dark reds and oaky browns of the cabin itself to the crisp white shirts worn by the employees of the complex. Texture and detail shine through beautifully: Check out the mixture of colored hair on the mounted wolf's head and the emphasized perfection of the cabin's exteriors. And, all too important in this scenario, the black levels are good and inky for all the nighttime shots. The audio is also excellent and is quite amazing toward the end of the film. Dialogue is consistently unfettered and out front, and when the armada of monsters is released on the complex, the back end is alive with screams, roars, and squeaks that reach a near-symphonic level. Very impressive work.
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon offer a rollicking, invigorating commentary, and though it doesn't exactly offer any newfound depth of insight into the film's narrative engine, it does delight in the production of the film. With energy and wit, Goddard and Whedon give a tremendous amount of information about the cast, the script, and the production. On the other hand, the Bonus View Mode gives little in terms of bonus, ditto the "Secret Secret Stash" featurettes. The making-of featurette is informative and a lot of fun, including some discussion of Whedon's particular thematic fascinations. The makeup, animation, and visual effects featurettes are largely by-the-book and only of minor note, as is the Wonder-Con Q&A session. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Despite its severe faults, The Cabin in the Woods offers at least a partial inhale of fresh air and Lionsgate, in turn, decks it out with an excellent A/V transfer and an admirable bundle of extras.