The titular cabin in The Cabin in the Woods seems pretty run-of-the-mill—small, unassuming, common. But when an unseen cellar door opens, the cottage is suddenly much bigger and richer. What was previous seen of the cabin turns out to be merely the tip of the iceberg. There's more below the surface.

The cabin is a good analogy for this surprising, original, and inventive movie. What if horror films—like the slasher movie Cabin portends to be—are only a small, visible part of something larger? What if this connection, this greater reality, is the reason for all the very common archetypes, plots, and conventions they share?

It's an avant-garde re-shuffling of tired genre tropes—in other words, classic Joss Whedon, Cabin's co-writer (creator of TV shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly and director of Serenity and the upcoming The Avengers). In fact, Cabin can be seen as a natural extension of Buffy. Whedon responded to horror movies' tendency to slaughter the blonde cheerleader by creating one who the monsters had to fear. With Cabin, Whedon and co-writer/first-time director Drew Goddard (a stand-out writer on Buffy, Alias, Lost, and Cloverfield) don't just play with character conventions but shake up the genre itself, question deep-set traits, poke at our desensitized voyeuristic bloodlust, and mimic the manipulative process of making these movies.

All the stereotypes show up at this cabin

All the stereotypes show up at this cabin

How Whedon and Goddard approach this is best left as a surprise. As New York Magazine wrote, the "very premise is a spoiler." Suffice it to say, the slasher-movie storyline of college students (an alpha male, a bookworm, a stoner, a virgin, and a vixen) being slaughtered in the woods is only one of two intersecting plotlines. And not even where the film begins.

While Scream pointed out the horror genre's rules, Cabin in the Woods takes a deeper, more cynical post-modern aim at, it would argue, antiquated moralism behind the rules. While too much detail would be a spoiler, those in the film who dole out punishment for youthful indiscretions are of an older generation and beholden to "remnants of the old world." The film actively questions and brushes off perceived old thinking about morals. In this way, Cabin actually feels a bit like a modern version of how Victorian Age aesthetes, who in a time of emerging secularism and science, stressed a "seize the day" worldview over that of traditional Victorian literature. Wheaton College's Leland Ryken wrote that literature of this time "was often laden with philosophic comment and moralizing … [one author even] defined the function of literature as being to tell us how to live." Sounds a bit like horror flicks where the drug-using or promiscuous teens are first to go, right? Whedon and Goddard even employ an aesthete approach of indirection and suggestion (or maybe just sloppiness?) that forces the viewer to interpret any message. There are so many little strings of commentary (some feel half-baked or incomplete) that individual viewers may pull on different ones. Does the genre itself forbid the concept of free will? Have we been as manipulated as a horror movie character? But an echoing message to me was this: It's not worth abiding by black-and-white rules when we live in a gray world. And why do we enjoy the punishment of those rule-breakers so much, anyway?

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Kristen Connolly as Dana

Kristen Connolly as Dana

All this talk of avant-garde filmmaking might make Cabin sound heavier or smarter than it is. While Goddard and Whedon have some points to make, it's clear they aren't taking it all seriously. First and foremost, this is a blast of a thrill ride. It's hard to miss the writers' joy in establishing their world and then flipping it—and you—upside down. The two parallel storylines intersect into a final third that is crazy, fun wall-to-wall mayhem that invokes about every horror movie ever made. In addition, it's actually a very funny and even charming movie, an odd genre-bending concoction of horror, action and comedy—a big ball of Evil Dead, Scream, Matrix, The Hunger Games, Scooby Doo, Zombieland, and a lot of Whedon's previous work—especially season 4 of Buffy.

It's well acted—especially by Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) who, in spoiler-tastic roles, hilariously steal the movie and provide its center. I could have watched an entire movie of just them riffing. They, and Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) as the stoner teen, have several one liners (like "Everyone knows you can't trust the Swedes") that will now be quoted incessantly.

Whedon and Goddard on the set

Whedon and Goddard on the set

Those well acquainted with scary movies or who enjoy raucous "Don't open that door" theater experiences will have a blast. Whedon fans will be delighted. While not a traditional horror movie, there are still scares, jumps, and blood and gore galore—but I didn't find it to be the type of grisly, graphic horror movie that keeps me up at night. The gore was much less affecting than even TV's The Walking Dead, which often causes me to avert my eyes.

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Once the rollercoaster is over, though, the movie can lose some of its shine. There are major plot holes and easy shortcuts that make no sense (Look, that architect has to be fired over his elevator design). Still, it is so clever, so ambitious, so fresh, and so boisterously entertaining, that it will be a huge hit and a fan favorite.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Who is the hero of this movie? Why?
  2. Who can or should decide what the greater good is—and how to achieve it?
  3. What did you think of the character's decision when told "You can die with them or you can die for them"? What is the movie saying about self-sacrifice and society with that action?
  4. What do you make of all the conversation about the need for people to be punished? Why? Why these people?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Cabin in the Woods is rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity. Characters are killed through stabbings and beheadings. There is much gore including much blood splattering and a decapitated head. There is a sequence of dozens of quick scenes reminiscent of various horror movies; images include a woman shooting herself in the head, a man being strangled with a bag, zombies feasting on victims, a man being continually vomited on, etc. Two women are seen in various stages of undress: in panties, unbuttoning shirts, and one is shown topless. A man and woman undress each other; he uses teeth on her panties. A woman performs a drunken sexy dance and makes out with a stuffed wolf head (really). Several instances of frank talk about sex; one woman is implied to have slept with an older professor. Drug use includes a number of scenes of bong use and joint smoking. A bong is used triumphantly as a weapon and it's revealed that drug use actually helps one hero survive the events of the film. Profanity includes many uses of the F-word and the Lord's name in vain.

The Cabin in the Woods
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(16 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity)
Directed By
Drew Goddard
Run Time
1 hour 35 minutes
Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison
Theatre Release
April 13, 2012 by Lionsgate
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