The Cabin in the Woods, the new film by Drew Goddard, is not the recycled slasher tale I semi-wanted it to be—and for that, I’m thankful. I usually go to horror movies hoping to see lots of murder and mayhem, and leave feeling wholly unsatisfied when the film does exactly that. Cabin turned out to be the movie I never knew I wanted. Instead of appealing to the lowest common denominator of horror, it actually explores that denominator and tries to explain why it exists. And, unlike The Last Horror Movie or Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, it does so without being judgmental or condescending.
To get to that lowest common denominator, the film looks to the man who is arguably the father of modern horror: H.P. Lovecraft. I will admit I don’t understand modern geekdom’s obsession with H.P. Lovecraft. I first encountered Lovecraft after growing obsessed with the Silent Hill videogame series, which, I discovered, drew inspiration from the occult horror author. So, I checked out some of his work, and while I liked it, I didn’t care to read more than a few short stories. After all, most of his tales seemed to rely on a storytelling crutch involving protagonists being driven mad by the sight of some indescribable horror, which Lovecraft conveniently never describes.
It came as a surprise to me when, several years later, I discovered the internet’s rampant obsession with all things Lovecraft, usually taking the form of lame memes. When visiting popular news sharing sites like Reddit and Digg, professing one’s love for Lovecraft—or, by proxy, Cthulhu—was simply one box to check in a long line that contained other ‘net stalwarts such as militant atheism and a love of the videogame Portal.
Despite all that, there is something admittedly creepy about the works of Lovecraft, particularly his recurring theme of ancient eldritch gods so old and evil that mankind cannot even comprehend how little they care about our puny race. The thought of an Evil Being in complete control of your existence and yet equally unconcerned about your well-being does raise some uncomfortable existential questions, to say the least.
Cabin picks at this uncomfortable scab of a thought, while leaving itself more than enough time to oscillate between being conceptually clever, mildly scary and outright hilarious. Goddard co-wrote the film with his longtime colleague Joss Whedon, who practically rivals Lovecraft in terms of nerd adulation. Easily identifiable as a Whedon project, the film bears Whedon’s comedic imprint, made famous in iconic shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. In fact, the plot of The Cabin in the Woods feels reminiscent of the Initiative-heavy fourth season of Buffy, albeit mixed with the self-referential horror of Scream, the comedic gore of Evil Dead 2, the brain-teasing of Cube and the cerebral horror of Lovecraft.
The film tells the story of five college students (played by Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchinson, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams and Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) who take a trip to a relative’s titular isolated cabin in some unnamed woods for a vacation, where they encounter some unexpected-yet-totally-expected horror. I don’t want to say anything more than that, since part of the fun of the movie is the slow reveal of what’s actually happening onscreen. Rest assured that you will be kept guessing. After all, it’s Joss Whedon—he tries so hard to defy clichés that his proclivity for anti-clichés has become a cliché. Indulging in Whedon projects is almost an exercise in guessing whether he’s going to make the story do a 180 or a complete 360—a 360 obviously being what he initially would have done were it not a cliché in the first place. Either way, they have the advantage of being a good time.
Cabin is no exception. Unpredictable, filled with mayhem and tremendously funny, Cabin does just about everything right. Rather than wasting its dialogue on pointless exposition, the film pulls laughs from just about every line in the movie. It prematurely senses your exasperation with tired plot devices and motifs, and, instead of subjecting you to them yet again, invites you to be in on the joke. It eloquently skewers dated tropes you thought only you noticed. From a cellar full of obviously haunted artifacts that tempt our nubile protagonists to an adolescent J-horror vengeance spirit that torments a classroom of Japanese schoolchildren, The Cabin in the Woods is packed with gentle jabs at a genre beloved by its understandably jaded audience.
Does the story make sense in the end? Well, probably not. What it lacks in logical cohesion, though, it makes up for in ingenuity and, most importantly, fun—that elusive trait so often missing from films like these. Cabin stands with Scream, Shaun of the Dead and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil as an effective, self-aware scary movie that blurs the line between comedy, drama and horror. It even manages to pose a few interesting moral dilemmas; you might be surprised at the outcome you wind up advocating for our protagonists. I never thought I would feel so ethically challenged by a movie where a guy gets gored to death by a unicorn. Determined to defy convention until the very last frame, The Cabin in the Woods will keep you on the edge of your seat with anticipation, and, best of all, it won’t shatter your precious human psyche by subjecting you to the sight of an unfathomable, timeless monstrosity.
The Cabin in the Woods opens this weekend. Definitely see it.