It’s perhaps not best practice for a film critic to advise his readers not to read his review, but in the case of The Cabin in the Woods, I’ll risk it. I went into this Joss Whedon-produced horror with a happy ignorance as to what to expect, and it was precisely this feeling (more and more scarce these days, thanks to the dwindling art of trailer composition) that I would not wish to deprive others of. So I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum in the following paragraphs, but if you want to experience this film (and it is a good film) at its best, I would advise against reading on.
The reason for such overt caution here is because the film’s primary raison d’être is to circumvent expectations, specifically those associated with the horror genre. The biggest spoiler you could reveal is not plot or character related, but simply that this is a satire. It is, on a fundamental level, a comedy. Now, at times, the film tries to have its cake and eat it, attempting to elicit both shocks and laughs, and it rarely bridges the gap between being funny and scary at the same time (a rare mixture one of this film’s great reference points, Evil Dead, did so well), but fortunately it is clever, well-made and, at times, very funny indeed.
The plot mixes two disparate but interconnected scenarios, though for the purposes of the review we’ll stick with the basic setup, and that involves a group of five young and attractive friends making their way to the titular dwelling for an out-of-city break. They quite purposefully fill the tropes of a horror cast, but the surprising thing is that they’re so likable, and this owes a huge amount to a witty, carefully thought-out script and all around good performances. The latter extends to the wider cast too, including a smirk-inducing cameo late on. Rising star Chris Hemsworth, who played Thor for Kenneth Branagh, is perhaps the ‘biggest’ name on the poster and he, like the rest, does a great job. He also gets one of the best lines, delivered in absolute deadpan, which will surely be one of the year’s best-remembered comic zingers. The star of the show, though (barring characters we won’t discuss here), is undoubtedly Fran Kranz as Marty, the pot-smoking, wise-cracking nerd, who amongst other credits played a part in Joss Whedon’s short-lived TV series Dollhouse.
From the off, the film plays with convention, including a brilliant opening couple of gags, and it’s clear that while the satire here is painted broadly, it’s actually very sharp-witted and clearly observed by fans of the genre. The list of horror references in here is mind-boggling, from George Romero’s early work to The Shining, Evil Dead, Hellraiser, J-horror and all manner of others more subtle and obscure. Crucially, though, it doesn’t pander solely to horror aficionados. It’s aware of its in-built audience and the mainstream, and it will play well to both.
Intelligent, witty and cine-literate in a charmingly self-referential way, The C abin in the Woods sets out to do something different and does it with bravado. It flags on occasion, but never seriously, and deserves to be an unexpected success story in 2012.