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What do you expect from a horror movie titled THE CABIN IN THE WOODS? A pretty young virgin? A handsome jock? A dumb blonde bimbo? The token nice guy? The stoner goof-off? Director/writer Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon provide all of these slasher movie clichés. You might expect the characters to be picked off one by one by, say, zombie rednecks. And you wouldn’t be all that off. And yet Goddard and Whedon turn the tropes on their ear and provide us with a new meta, modern myth.
The movie doesn’t start with the tried-and-true character types mentioned above, but begins in a very sterile-looking government facility. Sitterson (Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford, TV’s THE WEST WING) chat about their top-secret project like it is a routine event. We wonder how their work project will affect the college students heading out to a remote cabin in the forest. Why is this agency watching these kids?
Dana (Kristen Connolly, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD) is your pretty young virgin, but she’s a little different than virgins in other horror flicks. She just finished having a fling with one of her professors. Her best friend, Jules (Anna Hutchison, TV’s WILD BOYS), a dyed blonde, wants her to forget about her affair and hook up with Holden (Jesse Williams, TV’s GREY’S ANATOMY), the horror movie’s token black guy. When Jules’ muscular boyfriend, Curt (Chris Hemsworth, THOR), shows up and Dana wants to take schoolbooks along on the trip he doesn’t call her a nerd, but suggests a different textbook. But wait I thought all jocks were dumb? Also along for some laughs is stoner Marty (Fran Kranz, THE VILLAGE), who seems to be a parody of Shaggy from SCOOBY-DOO.
What does an audience anticipate from a horror movie like this? Often they voyeuristically watch as pretty young women shed their clothes and then are brutally murdered one after another until the virgin is the only one remaining. They might take bets on which teenager will die first. It really doesn’t matter whether the killer is a zombie redneck, pinheaded demon, a giant bat or merman as long as that killer kills with flare. In a self referential way, the film humorously addresses all of these desires.
The character types in modern horror movies have taken on a mythical quality. Like when the Greeks and Romans told tales of vengeful gods who treated humans like pawns in their epic play. Unrelenting killing machines have replaced the deities in cinema. Goddard and Whedon touch on the idea of storytelling tradition and cultural expectations. Like a Greek play could never be missing a chorus, a horror flick cannot be missing that creepy gas station attendant that warns the students of impending doom?
Well, the film is actually less scary than it is funny, but that is not to say it is absence of good tension. While the students are presented as character types we still instantly relate to them, fearful of the larger forces that are conspiring against them without their knowledge. There is one moment involving the stuffed head of a wolf and a game of truth or dare that had me squirming in my seat. And once the world of the government agents and the students collide this ingenious twist on the horror genre keeps us guessing until the very end.
As a horror movie fan I found this take on the genre both funny and ingenious. It’s not the standard plot points that make this film so engaging it how they are presented to the audience. There are two stories going on — the traditional kids in the woods horror flick and a larger more devious tale. The bigger story makes us wonder what will happen next and the student story makes us wonder which cliché we will get next. In the end, the best compliment I can pay the film that there is nothing cliche about it — it’s an original.