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A Paternity Leave Review of "The Cabin in the Woods" (2012)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

The Cabin in the Woods is a great movie about movies that works primarily as a comedy, but has enough thought-provoking moments to create deep, philosophical fear.  It's an excellent film that holds up to repeat viewings and should be seen by anybody who enjoys horror movies.

My Rating: 4.5 / 5

The Part Where I Address Some People I Never Met

So, I wasn't really planning to ever write a full review of The Cabin in the Woods, because there's not really a need for one.  The movie has a 7.1 on IMDb and a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Millions of people have seen and loved it.  Nobody really needs me to give it a good write-up, do they?  Well... in one particular case, the answer is, "Maybe."

Y'see, one of my dearest friends, a fellow Baltimore resident who just recently finished his PhD at Johns Hopkins, has another friend who, in turn, talked to a group of their mutual friends about how much he hated The Cabin in the Woods and why anybody who likes it is an idiot.  Or something to that effect.  (I don't know for sure.  I wasn't there when the topic came up.)  So now my friend has expressed the sentiment that whenever he talks about movies, the friend of my friend will convinced all the friends of the friend of my friend that they shouldn't listen due to the aforementioned movie hate.

Anyway.  Ordinarily I'd just stay out of this since I don't know any of the people involved, and I'm at least two steps removed from the argument.  Still, there's an anonymous group of Johns Hopkins students who deserve a solid counterpoint.  And since I'm building up a bank of miscellaneous movies to review for November, why not kill two birds with one stone?

So this review may seem like I'm covering a lot of basic information that you're probably already familiar with, but keep in mind that I'm writing this for a very specific group of people: movie fans who were told that The Cabin in the Woods is stupid and haven't seen it yet.

Friends: put aside your pre-programmed grudges and rent this movie.  You're in for a treat.

Here's the Part Where I Summarize the Plot

...nah, I'm not doing that.

I'll give you the basic premise.  A group of college students go to an isolated cabin in the woods to party for a few days, and then a horrible evil springs up from nowhere and attacks them.  But that's as much as I'm going to say about the specifics of the plot, because literally anything else I say is a spoiler of some sort.

You just can't do plot summaries with a movie like The Cabin in the Woods.  It's not right.

It's not that Cabin requires you to be completely surprised by every plot development for it to be enjoyable - it's just that nothing can beat the shock and awe of seeing a clever movie unfold for the first time.

It's like watching Terminator 2 for the first time and then you see the seen where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick face off at the mall.  For the rest of us in the know (or who picked it up by cultural osmosis), it's just a standard action scene, but for those who haven't seen it yet, it's this incredible moment that blindsides you.  When you go back to watch it for the second or third (or in my case, seventy-eighth) time, you still appreciate it, but you might feel a bit of nostalgic bittersweet at not being able to go back and see it again with fresh eyes.

So it is with Cabin.  This is a movie that works best if you go into it completely blind, completely free of any preconceptions or expectations.  If you like it the first time, then you'll love to revisit it later and pick up on more details.

So if I can't write about the plot, what will I write about?  Let's start with the humor.

The Part Where I Write About Cleverness

A clever movie can sometimes be its own worst enemy.  A well-timed plot twist or sarcastic comment can come across as righteous, sneering, and arrogant.  Even worse - if the movie's not actually all that clever, but it thinks it is, then you end up with an irritating pile of smug.

This is often my complaint about Joss Whedon's work.  I respect what Whedon does and I admire his career, but there are a lot of times when I just can't deal with his tone.  Even movies that I generally liked - such as Serenity or The Avengers - are often tedious because I don't feel like the characters are being sincere.  Just a bunch of too-hip-for-you cowboys trying to one-up each other.

I say this because Cabin - which was produced and co-written, but not directed, by Whedon - definitely embodies some of that snark.  It can be off-putting at first.

The thing is, Cabin actually is clever, so it earns its snark.  More importantly, its sneering, self-righteous characters are actually the butt of the joke more often than not.  This sets it apart and gives its tone some solid justification.

Like Hot FuzzCabin is at once an homage / love letter to and a critical indictment of its genre.  Every horror movie cliche or trope is invoked for the purpose of both celebration and derision.  The difference is that there are actual, purposeful reasons for things to be so stupid.

The Bit Where I Write About the Meta-Commentary and an Extended Metaphor

Cabin's antagonists are (mild spoiler) a metaphor for us, the audience.  They demand that the characters abide by horror movie tropes for the explicit purpose of creating tension, no matter how contrived, stupid, or mean, because that's what they (we) want when we watch a horror film.

This gives the movie a chance to make some terrific observations about horror movies - and movies in general, really.  Every moment is seeded with great jokes, some subtle, and some not-so-subtle.

Probably one of the best jokes - and, ironically, one of the few specific details that the friend-of-friend criticized - is a moment where (mild spoiler) there is a "Purge" button that, when pushed, will cause a horrible thing to happen.  Now, there is no good goddamn reason for a Purge button to exist.  It makes no sense.  And if it was going to exist, it should be hidden away somewhere, not put out in the open for anybody to stumble onto.

The joke, of course, is that the characters who built the button didn't have a choice.  They had to install something so blindingly stupid because that's what the evil forces / we want.  And they had to put it in a place where it could easily be pushed, because the evil forces / we want to see it get pushed.

All of this commentary is hilarious at first, but it goes a step further by connecting these tropes with our fascination with violence.  This is where the movie becomes really brilliant, because even as you're laughing, you'll feel a twinge of unease when you realize that you're the horrible person.  It's basically what Funny Games wanted to be, only it's not boring.

Cabin is hardly the first movie to make the observation that "man is the true monster," but it is certainly the most hilarious and possibly the most honest.

The Part Where I'll Acknowledge a Fair Criticism

The grand reveal in the end puts the protagonists in a tight position where they are forced to make a terrible decision.  Ultimately, I think the choice that is made does a disservice to the rest of the film.  On the one hand, there's a great "Fuck you!" kind of moment that works as a good emotional high point, but on the other hand... if the character made the other, less popular choice, the movie would have struck a deep, disturbing, and terrifying chord.

Basically the movie gets to a point where humanity's capacity for cruelty is laid outright, bare and plain, and instead of acknowledging this, the characters try to defy the "rules" of the movie.  I appreciate the ending for what it is, but I think the darker, more disturbing ending would have been more memorable.

To put it in other words, the ending would have been a choice between a punchline or a sucker punch.  The punchline is a bit of a cop out... but the rest of the movie is no worse for it.

The Spoiler-Free Conclusion

Cabin is like a much more extreme, more thorough, and more violent version of Scream.  It's hilarious, creepy, and one of the smartest horror films you'll ever see.

It should still be on Netflix, but if it isn't, you might as well buy a copy.  It's a keeper.

The Part with Spoilers

Shit, I just can't leave this alone.  It's so frustrating to speak about a movie without bringing up spoilers.  Let's just pretend those folks at Hopkins decided to take some good advice and watch this, so my mission is complete and now I can go on about the ending a little more, shall we?

So, the antagonists are actually Lovecraftian elder gods who insist that humans sacrifice a group of young people each year by killing them off through a variety of cinematic deaths, right?  And that's why all the stupid shit happens - because a secret government agency has constructed a series of elaborate traps to make sure that the college kids follow a horror movie script and die.

This leads to a great moment where the stoner, Marty, is "killed."  The government stooges see him die on hidden cameras and check him off their list, but of course, he isn't actually dead.  So when the Last Girl, Dana, is rescued by Marty, it's actually a tragedy.  If Marty continues to live, then the Lovecraftian gods will wipe out humanity.

Now, fast forward to the ending, where Dana has to choose between killing Marty / appeasing the gods (us) and saving the world, or letting Marty live, thus angering the gods (us) and destroying the world.  She opts not to kill him, and the film ends with the gods rising up in anger.

What I love about Marty's death is that the gods were fine with him having a fake-out death.  You get the sense that they knew all along that he wasn't dead - just as you, the viewer, can probably guess that he's still alive since his death didn't occur on screen - and they (we) enjoyed the suspense.

What I don't like is that Marty continues to live.  The most chilling thing about the movie is not that the elder gods exist, or that the government has a bunch of horrible creatures at their disposal to inflict horror movie vengeance upon unsuspecting teenagers, or any of the actual deaths.  No, the scary thing is that the government stooges are so bored.  They deal in cruel murder day in, day out - much like a guy who watches shitloads of horror movies - and now they just find it terribly dull.

That's why the movie should've ended with Dana killing Marty.  "We" are upset that the movie isn't ending the right way and so "we" will destroy the world if Marty lives.  Dana shoots Marty and "we" are at peace.  Then Dana gradually fades into an emotional coma, cold and dead to a world gone mad... and we (both in the film and in the real world) are left shrugging and saying, "That sucks.  I wonder what horror movie we'll watch next."

That's the meta-commentary they should've gone for.  That's the horrible realization that would've taken the move to the next level.  It's a missed opportunity.

Still a great movie, though.