A Discussion of The Cabin in The Woods (with plenty of spoilers)

I’ve seen The Cabin in the Woods twice now, and I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit.  As most of you are probably aware, it relies heavily on the audience being unaware of a lot of the elements going in (I’d say “twists,” but that’s not exactly what’s going on here, at least not in the usual M. Night Shyamalan sense).  Most reviews have focused on broad strokes, giving a rough appraisal without spoiling anything.  I think that’s good, but I’m also interested to hear what people thought of specific elements and choice the film made.

SPOILER: At no point does the cabin literally change shape like a giant Rubik's Cube.

Thus, I’m posting a recap/discussion of some of the elements of the film.  Obviously, it’s going to involve spoilers.  If you haven’t seen The Cabin in the Woods yet, stop reading this and go out and see it.  Don’t read any other reviews, don’t even watch the trailer, just see it.  It’s not really very scary, and it’s definitely worth seeing.  You won’t really have much of an opinion or anything to discuss regarding what I’m about to say if you haven’t seen it.

So seriously, spoilers ahead.  Don’t read unless you’ve seen it.

Ok?

If you’re still here, you must have seen The Cabin in the Woods.  Did you like it?  I liked it.  I thought it was pretty damn clever.  Great monster design, good performances (especially by the two coordinators of the control room, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford), and a nice example of being meta without just going off the deep end with it.

The first act of the movie is a little tedious.  We’re introduced to characters who seem stock even before they’re really intended to, and they put us through all the paces of a cliche horror flick.  Even though we understand why, on both an in-story and meta level, they’re acting the way that they are, it’s still a little boring to sit through.  The bits we get of parallel story, with the facility and its harried employees, are much more engaging and allow for more dialogue-based humor, which has always been Whedon’s strong suit.  To their credit though, the cast playing the college kids make the best of what they’re given, especially Fran Kranz as Marty the stoner.

Once they head into the cellar is when the movie starts to pick up.  The cellar scene is extremely tense, mainly because you have no earthly idea what’s coming next (assuming you haven’t had it spoiled).  The creepy scene of the Buckners rising from their graves being followed immediately by one of the greatest whiteboard gags of all time sets up something the movie does really well: juxtaposition.  Repeated cuts between violent action at the cabin and the dispassionate observers in the control room help to unpack the scares and add some reflection to the deaths.  These scenes are still a bit jumpy and gory, but the contrast with shlubby guys in ties helps to cut down on the tension.  It’s also nice to see Dana (Kristen Connolly) develop a little bit as a character, even if it is in a somewhat fatalistic direction.

When the red phone rings in the control room and act 3 starts is when this film really starts to shine.  This is unquestionably the best part of the movie, when they’re finally able to knock down the dominoes they’re been setting up for about an hour.  There’s so much here that I like, I think I’m gonna run through it with bullet points:

  • Fornicus, the Lord of Pain
  • Leechface Ballerina girl
  • The security camera shot of Dana and Marty holding each other in the cell, probably the sweetest and saddest image in the film
  • Pretty much everything about the “system purge sequence”
  • The evil surgeons performing some procedure on someone after roughly 15 seconds of prep time
  • (Side note: is the evil clown played by Joss Whedon?  As far as I know it’s uncredited, and it kind of looks like him.)
  • The merman gag

So after that breakneck sequence (probably my favorite bit of action I’ve seen in theatres all year) our heroes end up in the bowels of the complex, where Sigourney Weaver (for some reason) arrives to deliver some exposition.  I’d pieced most of it together already, but I guess it was important for the characters to have it explained to them.  Then Dana is given a pretty compelling morality choice: kill her remaining friend or let the whole world die.  For me, the second option was probably a better way to go.  It reminds me of the story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about a utopia built on the intentional and prolonged abuse of an innocent, and how some members of the society react.  The destruction of the entire human race is kind of an extreme step to take, but it’s one that fits with the characters as we’ve come to know them, especially given their experiences.  So the Ancients rise in the form of… a giant hand.  I don’t really know what I was expecting here, but it was something more along the beautiful/horrifying lines of a Final Fantasy creature.  A giant hand hinting at a giant god is alright, but as the final image of the movie it kind of underwhelmed me.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it overall!!  The Cabin in the Woods is a clever commentary on horror movies, one which is very clearly from the perspective of people who love them despite their faults.  I think some of it would’ve resonated better when it was shot in 2009 (by MGM, so it languished in limbo until finding a distributor), since the torture porn/slasher freak sub-genre it’s the hardest on has kind of gone out of style in favor of “found footage” ghost stories.  Still, there’s something in there for everyone, and it manages to satirize cliches even when it’s not telling jokes.

So what did everyone else think?  Am I way off base in my praise/criticisms?  Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the nitty-gritty details of the movie.

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4 responses

  1. Matt E

    I thought the movie was great. I usually can’t sit through any remotely scary movie but it’s Whedon and got good reviews so I sucked it up. Best horror movie I’ve seen in a while, and even funnier than a lot of recent comedies. The ballerina girl though…I wish I could unsee that…

    April 23, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    • Joe

      I thought it was interesting that The Unborn, which came out a couple of years ago, did the same kind of “face full of teeth” thing. I doubt it was as direct a reference as the Hellraiser looking stuff, but it was still funny to see something specific this movie did almost as a parody played straight somewhere else.

      April 23, 2012 at 2:00 pm

  2. BREE

    wiggity wack

    July 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm

  3. AhhhhQuaMan

    We just got Cabin in the Woods from Blockbuster at Home and it was the best movie I have seen all summer! This guy that works at DISH with me said that it was scary and funny, but I never knew they would be able to balance the two so beautifully. The part wit the Asian schoolgirls had me rolling on the ground. I rented it in blue ray because it does not cost extra and it really shouldn’t be seen any other way. Definitely a must watch.

    September 22, 2012 at 10:11 pm

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