Having sat on the shelf for eighteen months whilst the troubles of its former studio played out, The Cabin in the Woods arrives to moderate fanfare; the involvement of geek hero Joss Whedon overshadowed by his far greater involvement in the forthcoming Avengers Assemble and an industry move away from the genre it is targeting. That it is a moderately successful comment on the state of modern horror is good, but it’s far from being the game changer it has been advertised as.
The central premise has been fairly spoiled in the adverts so there’s nothing that isn’t known here – a group of teens travel off for a weekend away, are manipulated into conforming to the tropes of the genre and are picked off one by one in the standard fashion, all under the watchful eye of directors carrying it out for an unseen purpose. But it is here that the first cracks in the construction start to appear. The teens have to make the choices of their own free will, but from the start we see them being chemically and stage managed into the situation (and no one really comments on this in relation to the premise), undermining what could have been a subtle dig at the direction the genre has taken in recent years (although this could be a comment about the true nature of reality TV, the problem is it sometimes isn’t sure what its target is). From here it becomes a case of ticking off the references and tropes as and when they occur, as the film flits between standard killer pursuit horror and broad comedy, for the most part successfully, but with occasional wobbles.
One suspects that if it had concentrated more on the comedy and cut away from the gross out moments that it may be more successful in its goal, but it never does. The horror in turn sits in a curious place, at odds with the comedy but never quite graphic enough to make you uncomfortable – off screen splatter for the most part and the ever popular jump cut. The only sequence that moves over into the uncomfortable category occurs almost off screen, played on CCTV in the background so that we never really see what is happening. Here, Whedon seems to be targeting the issue of reality TV, but never quite has the bite to truly turn on it, although it is by far the most effective sequence in the film. If more scenes had had the same sense of discomfort then it may have been more effective in its goal.
The small screen is also part of the problem. It is quite easy to see the events of the film taking place within the Buffy universe, but it’s never quite as pithy or sharp as that was when it was at its best, the characters never quite as well defined (admittedly, something difficult to shoehorn into a hundred minute running time), but also you get the sense that the end will not quite be the apocalypse it threatens to be. This may be unfair, but it’s hard to move from out of the shadow of such a successful show, especially when you’re treading over similar ground. Likewise, the media aspect as been better explored recently in shows such as Black Mirror, where the comedy was pitched as black as the subject matter is. The film seems to lack bite, unwilling to completely savage the system that made it, rather give it a playful bite before leaving it alone.
Despite all of these reservations (many of which I suspect may be down to personnel taste on my part, I’m certainly pickier with regards to media these days) it is great fun. The cast is uniformly excellent, making the most of their sometimes limited roles and as per usual, the dialogue whips along at a fair old rate. There’s also a real inventiveness to the creature design, with references to other films, books & TV series – sometimes glimpsed only for seconds – played for a mixture of laughs and yucks along the way. There’s also a surprise cameo at the end that’s a knowing wink at the audiences expectations, before an ending which may be aiming for shock but sort of falters given everything else that has occurred before.
It’s also a rarity these days to comment that a film feels about the right length. Too often they tip the two hour scales with padding, but here everything seems taut, with no superfluous scenes or anything outstaying its welcome. It’s only a small thing, but it is a big positive these days not to feel that the studio cookie cutter has proscribed the length.
It’s probably a great film to see with a crowd of friends on a Friday night before a few beers, and it’s certainly better than the vast majority of teen orientated comedy horrors that come along, but I can’t help but feel that it could have been so much more. As I initially commented, it isn’t the game changer it’s been advertised as, that came a couple of years ago when European studios realised that adults were still interested in films and starting producing films outside of the teen market, although Hollywood has still to take notice. Recommended, although you wouldn’t really lose anything by waiting for the DVD.