Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods had a long, tough journey to New Zealand screens. Following the film’s 2009 completion, it was first postponed to be converted to 3D, then delayed indefinitely following MGM’s bankruptcy. Lionsgate eventually bought the film and mercifully released it in 2D, and since its premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year Cabin has been wowing audiences and earning rave reviews. However, despite the State-side success and huge level of fan interest – especially following The Avengers – the film was doomed to be released straight-to-DVD in Australasia due to our apparent history of low turnout for horror films. Outraged fans petitioned against Roadshow Films’ decision to no avail, and it took intervention from Incredibly Strange programmer Ant Timpson to ensure a cinematic release at the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival. Cabin screened last Friday night at Auckland’s Civic theatre (following Moonrise Kingdom) to a sizable and excitable audience, and was followed by a Q&A with local actress Anna Hutchison. Read below for my review, and keep checking back for further updates and reviews from the festival.
The Cabin in the Woods has a deceptively simple premise: five attractive teens head to a remote cabin in the woods and get picked off one by one. Sound disappointingly familiar? Well, think again, because this particular horror film comes from the minds of Joss Whedon and his Buffy cohort Drew Goddard, who know a thing or two about subverting genres. Aside from his work on Buffy, Goddard has worked as a writer on Angel, Alias, Lost and Cloverfield, and he makes his directorial debut here under the assured guidance of co-writer/producer/second-unit director (and Geek God) Whedon.
The film opens in a mysterious, sophisticated industrial facility, as two white-collar technicians, Stitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), prepare for an unknown but seemingly routine operation, apparently one of several taking place worldwide. However, their conversation with an underling (Amy Acker) suggests that something ominous is in the works. Meanwhile, the five aforementioned college students, who all appear to be genre stereotypes – the shy brunette, Dana (Kristen Connolly); the party-loving blonde, Jules (Anna Hutchinson); her jockish boyfriend, Curt (pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth); his bookish friend, Holden (Jesse Williams); and the paranoid stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz) – take off in an RV to the aforementioned cabin. After encountering an obligatory redneck at a local gas station, they discover that the creepy cabin isn’t what was advertised, and the technicians have plans for them which may ensure they never leave.
To reveal any more of the plot would be a disservice to the film, as much of the pleasure of Cabin derives from its meta-twists and knowing commentary on the horror genre, so it’s best enjoyed going in cold. Suffice it to say that none of the characters here are quite what they initially seem, and the film has great fun sending up many clichés – referencing everything from Evil Dead to J-horror to Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi along the way – and it’s probably the most playful and inventive entry in the formulaic American horror canon since Wes Craven’s Scream.
Cabin gets just about everything right in its brisk 95-minutes: the dialogue is snappy (in true Whedon fashion), the archetype characters are well-cast, the atmosphere is menacing, the cutaways to the reliable Whitford and Jenkins are witty and revealing, and the stakes are consistently raised until the convoluted story gets insane in the final act. On a modest budget, the effects are impressive throughout, and the creature designs are far more creative and interesting than the likes of Cloverfield or Super 8. However, Goddard and Whedon write themselves into somewhat of a corner by the film’s not entirely brilliant ending, and your level of satisfaction may depend on how much you enjoy cinematic puzzles and clever plot machinations, as the meta concept deprives us of any engagement with the characters. Regardless of these flaws, I’ll take an intelligent, high-concept film like The Cabin in the Woods over the torture-porn of Saw or found-footage tedium of Paranormal Activity any day, and my hat is off to Messrs. Whedon and Goddard for delivering one of the most sly and enjoyable entries in the genre for quite some time.
For more info and ticketing details on the 2012 NZIFF, head to their website.