Here’s the newest pleasant surprise from Hollywood, that often-disregarded (by sensible cinephiles), impossible-to-ignore wasteland where money is and has always been the prime motivator. Here is what happens every now and again when those few Hollywoodians with both talent and a mischievous sense of humor figure out a way to take a blockbuster-sized budget and do exactly what they want with it. In truth, it doesn’t happen all that rarely — benevolent producers from time to time have been known to bestow $50 million dollars on the artistic likes of Andersons Paul Thomas or Wes, and Edgar Wright has at least once managed to wrangle a big budget out of the system in order to make a personal, viciously idiosyncratic statement on teenage years.
Drew Goddard, director of the bizarrely satisfying horror satire The Cabin in the Woods, is not by a long shot in the league of the above-mentioned directors, and despite the unexpected qualities of his new movie, the truth is, what he and co-writer/buddy/geek legend Joss Whedon have made here is not pop-art so much as it is the mischievous, jibing, logical extension of its root genre.
You know the story. And furthermore, Whedon and Goddard know you know the story, and you know they know, and they know you know they know, and on and on. It’s the kind of movie that begins to feel like it’s made of winks, until, happily, it moves beyond them and rips its own eyelids off.
Five young folks, each with precisely one character trait and each quite attractive, travel into the remote woods for a weekend idyll. All signs point to ensuing horror — from the mean old Bible-spouting redneck to the two-way mirror that could only have been made for a torture chamber — but nobody accepts danger until it’s literally ripping out their innards, so the young folks carry blithely on. And since Whedon and Goddard aren’t about to let anyone think they’re watching a traditional teen slasher film, the buildup of the horror omens isn’t about waiting for scares so much as for the big surprise that all the movie’s advertising has hinted at.
Enter the antithesis of the masked slasher: two paunched-up corporate drones — played impeccably by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins — who operate from behind a computer bay with complete control of the cabin and the woods. Bloodthirsty underneath their crisp white business shirts, these drones are duty-bound to make sure each and every idyller dies a perfectly filmic death.
From its opening scenes, Jenkins and Whitford are an integral part of The Cabin in the Woods, so we’re never less than fully aware that this is intended to be more than a companion piece to Friday the 13th or Shark Night 3D. What happens as the young folks begin to sink deeper into a world created to seal their doom is too bizarre and too fun to ruin by recounting. Besides that, the fun is all in the moment. Not for a minute do the reasons why the corporate drones are killing these kids hold up to post-movie logic. Nor are they intended to. Suffice it to say that Whedon and Goddard have recharged a stale genre with a savvy new riff, yet they have also missed the chance to transcend it. Can you imagine a movie with this scenario morphing its way into the territory of masterpiece? The Cabin in the Woods ends on an exhilarating, wild orgy of carnage that holds an insane fidelity to its genre roots, but with all of its cleverness, the movie practically forces you to pinpoint where it stops short of being brilliant. It’ll take more than omniscient corporate drones to bring horror back after this one.