Director: Drew Goddard
The term “genre mashup” conjures an image of two complete narratives being tossed into a crucible and smashed until they no longer resemble one another, their edges and definition having been blunted by an inexpert method of combination. It is a suitable term for a great number of films, and in no way should be construed as a stealth takedown, but somehow it doesn’t seem to fit The Cabin in the Woods. There’s a craft to this film that seems to elevate above the idea of a simple “mashup.” This isn’t a film that takes pieces of two different styles of story and stitches them together to make a new kind of monster. Instead, this is a film that seamlessly melds and mixes two genres to create a sort of meta-commentary on one while heightening the strange pleasure of the other. Both stories elevate one another while never ceding their personal identity.
I know that probably seems like I am saying a lot without saying anything at all, but trust me, there are few other ways one could talk about Cabin in the Woods without ruining some of the subversive magic that it entails. This is a movie that thrives off of the delight that comes from not knowing what comes next.
The setup is deceptively simple, and the film seems to know it, and thus undercuts it almost from the beginning. We see a group of friends preparing to go to a cabin in the woods. Each of them hews close to a well-trod slasher movie stereotype, and yet each is differentiated by the more complex realness of an actual human being. The jock knows a lot about Soviet economics. The blond sex kitten actually just bleached her hair that day. The stoner is witty and perceptive in ways that expand beyond the usual bounds of his character. Each of them is recognizable without being a pat cliche.
Yet this entire introductory scene is given even further depth and menace by the scene that immediately precedes it and opens the film. A set of average office drones hang out in the break room, shooting the breeze regarding their home lives and the doldrums of their profession. Their dialogue is witty, their archetypes well-established, but the nature of their work is shadowy enough to given even their most banal statements and affectations an air of mystery. This scene, commingled with the scene involving the campers, creates an effective and engaging start to film that uses this basic template as a roadmap to a pretty bold and intelligent takedown of the very concept of the horror film. It’s not a deconstruction so much as a strange re-imagining, and it works wonderfully.
A lot of the praise for making this strange and wonderful amalgamation work goes to the cast, who are uniformly committed and effective. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are pitch-perfect as the office workers who have been around the block enough to have become comfortable with their strange profession and grant their characters a charming aloofness. Their chemistry and banter are definite highlights of this film. Likewise, Chris Hemsworth uses his considerable charisma (which served him so well in Thor) to really sell his jock-with-a-brain character. The real star, though, is Fran Kranz, who plays the stoner Marty so well that you just sort of assume that is how Kranz is in real life. He’s a bit dopey, sure, but he’s also whip smart, loyal to his friends, and surprisingly courageous. He is seemingly aware of the madness that surrounds him, and yet never winks at the camera to let us in on the secret. His character is aware, but his performance is not, which is a distinction which would be easy to fail to execute.
Of course Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard also deserve a lot of praise of their smart script (which Goddard then directed). They know that just pointing out or replaying a trope isn’t enough to make a movie something special – you have to do something genuinely interesting with it. They manage to riff on and parody certain things without ever descending into lazy pantomime. They own their homages, and turn out a piece of work that plays just as well as a tribute as it does a real deal.
I have a feeling that this movie will divide people between those who love it and those who think it might be too cute or clever with its self-awareness. To anyone who can see past the obvious meta-narrative and into the time and care and commitment that went into creating this film, I think that The Cabin in the Woods will be one of the biggest, most entertaining surprises of the year.
The Cabin in the Woods opens wide on Friday, April 13th.
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