Though it has become ubiquitous enough to feel like it’s always existed, self-awareness in film is a relatively fresh condition. Fourth wall breaking, references to other cinema, genre devices, overly archetyped characters; all are commonly used techniques to create self-referential “meta” films. And whether they’re built as an over-the-top spoof, a genre-clipping throwback, or a glorifying homage, these films take advantage of an audience’s pre-existing cinematic knowledge so we can all simply get to the point. The Cabin in the Woods is, perhaps, the most ingeniously-executed example of this trend; winking its way towards an almost assured cult film status. And while my list of superlatives could go from floor to ceiling, what I most admire about The Cabin in the Woods is the fact that, in trying to describe it, I can’t really say anything at all. Because–and here’s the catch–saying anything about it might just ruin everything about it.
Seriously. I can’t even write a synopsis. Well, ok, I can write a synopsis, but only to tell you what you already know: A group of college students head to the titular cabin in the titular woods, for a weekend of R&R. There, crazy shit happens. The key consideration here is precisely what category of “crazy shit” Cabin’s crazy shit falls into. This isn’t some supernaturally resilient maniac, or an interdimensional blood orgy…well, it isn’t specifically those things. We’re talking about an unhinging plot that recalls Lost in its heyday. As Cabin unfurls, revealing its true nature, you may want to tally the number of times you think to yourself, “Oh…WHOA.” This is what makes The Cabin in the Woods a film people need to know about it. While there’s plenty of superficial stuff worthy of praise, it’s ultimately the film’s ingenuity that gives it staying power in your mind. You’ll be unpacking this thing for days.
Because now you really want to know what the hell this movie is about, let me touch on some of the more general elements: Yes, this is a horror movie. It’s also a comedy. There are blood and laughs in nearly equal measure. Like certain other films that came before it, Cabin is academic about the tropes of the horror genre, though these genre keystones aren’t simply tossed about. They are broken down, and analyzed, and carry with them some serious conclusions about the state of horror films today. Joss Whedon, the film’s writer, has admitted that both he and Writer/Director Drew Goddard are coming from a place of immense frustration with the state of the genre. While the Roth’s and Six’s of the world have been busy trying to legitimize torture porn, the horror genre–once home to titles like The Exorcist or Psycho–has become a shell of itself, a fact which Whedon and Goddard felt compelled to respond to. And respond they have, in a joyously noisy and resoundingly intellectual way.
If you need further motivation to be one of the first on the Cabin in the Woods‘ bandwagon, allow me to get a little hyperbolic: This is the sort of film people will point to years from now as pivotal to their growth as a viewer. It bridges the gap between watching a film and parsing a film, because in this case, it’s impossible not to do both. A viewer with even the narrowest understanding of Horror Film Canon will recognize and appreciate the tropes as they come, but it is the film’s larger message that will keep people thinking about the title well after the last credit has rolled. With their characters, Goddard and Whedon are taking everybody to task, from the current titans of the horror genre, to the leering masses eagerly paying $12.50 for the latest bloody, thoughtless pulp. The writer/director team have, somehow, created a film that will satisfy a horror fan while simultaneously helping them appreciate what a drought the last several years have been.
So go see The Cabin in the Woods. There’s little else in the theaters right now, and this is precisely the sort of film that deserves to succeed this time of year. Yes, it has some scary moments, and, yes, it is pretty bloody, but while so many other horror movies are interested solely in these elements, Cabin is simply using them to get at something bigger. What has happened to the horror genre? Why has it seemingly become solely the purview of metalheads and juggalos? There was a time when these films were approached with the same degree of auteurism as anything else, and Hitchcock was one of the most well-regarded directors of his time. Now it’s about pushing limits until they break, and then pushing them some more. Goddard and Whedon understand the difference, and have drawn a line in the sand. Don’t you want to be on the right side of it?