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The Cabin in the Woods (2011): A SXSW Review

By Jacob Mertens.

Stop me if you have heard this story before: a group of teenagers head to a remote cabin in the woods, trading pithy comedic dialogue as a menacing score drifts in and out. The men and women on screen are young, carefree, and about die increasingly gruesome deaths. And, of course, we know it all instantly. In the opening moments of the film, our protagonist Dana (played by the aesthetically stunning and relatively unknown actress Kristen Connolly) walks around her bedroom in her underwear, promising the salacious titillation of sex and violence. Her dear friend Jules (Anna Hutchison) chastises Dana for pining for her ex-lover and college professor, insisting that a trip out to the woods will be what she needs to get over him. Meanwhile, Jules heavily pushes for a romance between Dana and their mutual friend Holden (Jesse Williams) with all the grace of a barely concealed plot point that the viewer knows will spark and sizzle out as the inevitable parade of violence settles in. It’s all standard fair, and we know what are getting into with the film, but the marketing push for The Cabin in the Woods would have the viewer think differently.

Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Holden (Jesse Williams) in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Photo credit: Diyah Pera

With the exception of the film’s unusually sharp and witty dialogue, its opening promises nothing terribly original in the way of horror films. And yet, from a genre standpoint, we might argue that beyond the film’s crass titillation, Dana’s scantily clad introduction subconsciously reminds the audience of her vulnerability. We might also argue that writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have utilized a horror genre archetype of the innocent female threatened by violence due to an increasingly sexualized agency. Once established, the film satirizes this horror genre convention, playfully mocking the tropes of innocence and purity by later revealing the suggested characterization as inaccurate (read: Dana has had plenty of sex before the start of the film).

In fact, we might make claims of subtle insight and satirical intent throughout The Cabin in the Woods and the film encourages us to do so. The Cabin in the Woods clearly yearns to be more than a horror film, while still honoring its genre roots. To the film’s credit, it manages several self-aware jibes and readily delivers an atmosphere of tension and grotesquerie that befits its genre forbearers. However, to buy into the pretentions of its genre-defying originality offers a false reading of the film: instead, The Cabin in the Woods gives the audience a solid horror-based narrative from a couple of writers who have seen far too many horror films and who have undoubtedly seen The Truman Show (1998) as well.

Marty (Fran Kranz, left), Curt (Chris Hemsworth, center) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Photo credit: Diyah Pera

With that note, we move into the true premise of The Cabin in the Woods: imagine a horror film in which an insidious government agency secretly pulls the strings, helping to orchestrate each untimely death. The explanation for this vile orchestration is eventually explained but best left to the film experience itself. Allow me to say, though, that the impetus for the government’s involvement gives little in the way of social commentary or the need to recontextualize the film’s violence (unlike the conceptually kindred Videodrome (1983) by David Cronenberg). Instead, Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods manages only to retain the thrills of a horror film while adding a new layer of complexity.

In the film, the viewer watches the actors try to escape their deaths at the hands of a cheerless family of torture loving zombies, allowing the typical thrills of suspense and character identification. However, as the film goes on, the viewer also watches the sardonic government employees struggle to ensure each character’s death in the following ways:

  • By releasing pheromones and toxins to alter each character’s behavior.
  • By locking characters into their individual rooms in the titular cabin.
  • By changing the lighting to suggest a romantic atmosphere for a couple doomed to die in the woods the moment they succumb to their sexual desires.

The resultant film engenders a feeling that the audience has pulled a curtain back on the writers, watching the machinations of each grisly death on the screen as if it were a reenactment of the writer’s creative expression. In truth, this is as intellectual of a reading as I can give The Cabin in the Woods, because beyond this added layer the entire film plays out the way we might imagine.

Fran Kranz stars as Marty in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Photo credit: Diyah Pera

In Cabin, characters die their predictable deaths, a twist emerges about two-thirds the way through the film that most will see coming, and a sadistic orgasm of violence at the film’s end provides a fun but superficial alternative to the isolating last stand of the film’s genre predecessors. Meanwhile, an explanation for this real life horror film replica gets shoehorned in at the end and manages to offer nothing in the way of reinterpretation. In other words, the film builds its mystery and then offers a resolution that denies the audience a chance to see it coming or to piece it together, while also denying the viewer a chance to see any new meaning in a second or third viewing. It is a missed opportunity when the viewer takes into a account the clear intelligence of the writers, but ultimately the film supplies enough cheap jumps and gruesome fatalities to make up for it. Cabin‘s new framing of the horror film does not lack for its healthy crescendo of bloodshed and chaos, pared with a unique self-aware humor and a few waning moments of a meta representation of writing. In fact, the film excels because of it, and the time the viewer spends in the theater moves quickly. With that said, the common music-induced suspense and ignoble thrills of exposed viscera remain the film’s most basic and honest draw.

Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer. His report from the SXSW film festival can be read here.

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