There will be unavoidable spoilers in this review.
The Cabin in the Woods is not your average horror flick, even though it utilizes many of the same tropes. Like the title indicates, most of the action takes place in a cabin at the end of a road in the woods, off the grid without cell phone support or GPS. Inside, a bunch of twentysomethings are planning to spend the weekend partying. Something goes wrong, and their lives are all put in danger. At this point, the film sounds like the most generic and boring horror movie you could think of.
Even the young adult characters are typecast. There’s the “Jock” (Chris Hemsworth), the “Joker” (Fran Kranz), the “Virgin” (Kristen Connolly), the “Whore” (Anna Hutchison), and the “Smart Guy” (Jesse Williams). Some of those might not be the exact words from the film, but they’re apt descriptions nonetheless. They’re your typical stock characters from any type of film with this nature, and it’ll be unsurprising to you that they act exactly how they’re supposed to, at least, for a while. Of course, that’s the entire point.
Now, I’m going to spoil something that’s given away right at the beginning of the movie, and you’ve probably already guessed it from the trailers anyway: There are some people controlling things from behind the scenes. We see them set-up the situation, manipulate it to their desire, and then let everything fall apart for the main cast. They don’t technically rig it all, as there’s still a hint of free will on the part of the archetypes, but they pretty much control the show. They can even release gasses which can alter a person’s thought pattern.
There is even more going on than just that, but for the most part, this is what happens. The twentysomethings release zombies, and have to try to survive not only the undead, but the people pushing the buttons from the other side of the fence. The Cabin in the Woods gets really strange later on, seeming like it was going to end before continuing on, tacking on a secondary motivation, and letting even more insanity unfold. I can’t remember the last time I saw a third act in a film that was this busy.
Let’s just give you a sample of what you’re going to get to see. When was the last time you saw a unicorn — which previously had no involvement in the film — stab a person to death? I can’t remember ever seeing that, especially not in the mainstream horror flick. And no, don’t start trying to figure out exactly how the unicorn plays into things, as you won’t be able to. You’re wasting your time even trying to figure out all of the twists and turns that The Cabin in the Woods takes you through. Even if you thought you figured it all out based on the trailer, you didn’t.
However, I don’t think you’re really going to appreciate the film unless you are a fairly big fan of horror films already. This is a film that plays with expectations, and if you don’t know enough about the genre going in that you build them up, the film won’t give you that sense of awe. You also won’t understand the criticism that it brings at the genre, showing you just how cliché and formulaic it has become. You’ll watch it, probably still like it, but won’t get anything more from it because you weren’t already in bed with the genre.
Still, there are points when I felt like it could have done more, like it should have subverted more tropes, poked more holes in them and made more references to classic horror films. Maybe I became a victim to hype, but I was a little let-down after coming away from Cabin in the Woods. I did have fun, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like something was missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a certain factor that wasn’t quite all there.
I’m beginning to think it was coherency, as the final act really does come out of nowhere, as does a cameo that completely blew me away. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t just daydreaming when a fairly big name actor came on-screen, but, yes, that actually did happen. There was only one hint at the character earlier, and the actor’s name wasn’t at all hinted at, but it comes way out of left field. I’ll give you a clue: He or she also appeared in a cameo role in a 2011 film, right at the end. It fit better there, I think, but the cameo here is just so shocking that it’s impossible not to mention it.
If you are hoping to go see The Cabin in the Woods and be scared, you will be disappointed. Apart from a couple of very effective jump scares, this isn’t a scary film by any stretch of the imagination. Its tone is fairly light throughout, with a lot of jokes and memorable lines scattered along the way. There’s one character whose sole purpose is to be comic relief, and you’ll be laughing pretty much any time he’s on the screen. Mostly, the film plays out like a puzzle, one that will eventually solve itself but you hope to figure out everything before it tells you. Your mind is always working, and that’s generally the sign of a good film.
The Cabin in the Woods is an effective film. It’s smart, funny, has a couple of good jump scares, and always works your mind. It falters a tad in its plotting, which is inconsistent and slightly incoherent, but the way it manages to criticize its own genre while still finding a way to be effective while working within its constraints is worthy of applause. And it has a third act that will be busier and more spectacular than the majority of movies you will ever see. It’s definitely worth seeing at some point in your life, especially if you’re a horror movie fan.