Film Review | The Cabin in the Woods

Horror fans are in for a treat with this unique take on the teen slasher film.

Kristen Connolly holds back a rabid zombie attack in this deliciously self-aware horror-comedy.
Kristen Connolly holds back a rabid zombie attack in this deliciously self-aware horror-comedy.

Good quality horror films are hard to find. For every Exorcist or The Shining, there are a dozen Creepers Jeepers-style duds, and the genre has also been guilty of churning out sub-par (and unnecessary) remakes of late: from Nightmare of Elm's Street down to Halloween and beyond.

Still, it remains a lucrative business. Blair Witch Project, made on a shoestring budget and catapulting to box office superstardom, was one of the cinematic success stories of the 1990s... so much so that studios have since strained very hard to replicate its winning formula, with varying degrees of success (see: Paranormal Activity).

But beyond the practically interchangeable monster/serial killer chillers, their countless remakes and the by now tired 'found footage' genre exemplars, something odd and wonderful has also found room to grow.

Joss Whedon (he of Avengers fame) and Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods partakes of this quirky tradition. Delivering all the thrills expected of the genre - and packing in enough in-jokes and film references to make any horror fan froth at the mouth with glee - the film also injects a welcome dose of humour... while making it fully clear to us that it's in on the joke from the word go.

While an ominous-funny prologue hints at a unique Truman Show-style setup for the film's main villains, things seem to be heading to tried and tested ground as the film opens.

Namely: a pack of college kids decide to head out to a remote country cabin, supposedly belonging to one of their relatives. The group are a generous cross-section of horror film archetypes. There's the quiet, brainy (and possibly virginal) Dana (Kristen Connolly), her recently-blonde and extroverted best friend Jules (Anna Hutchinson), who invites the also intellectually-inclined Jesse (Holden McCrea) in the hopes that he'll hook up with Dana, and whose hunky boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth) suggests the trip in the first place.

Completing the team of clichés is the stoner tag-along buddy, Marty (Fran Kanz) - whose ramblings turn out to be more perceptive than we - or indeed his friends - predict.

As the team encounter a surly petrol station owner on their way to the titular cabin, you'd be forgiven in thinking that you'd be able to suss out the rest of the film from that point onwards.

But you wouldn't be the only one. A well-oiled, hidden operation is in fact watching every move our young protagonists make, and nudging them to act as stereotypically as possible. But why?

The thick layer of irony wrapped around The Cabin in the Woods inevitably creams off some of the tension you'd otherwise feel about the characters' fate. If we know they're being watched and manipulated by external forces, we're obviously going to be slightly detached from the action.

But in opting for this entirely self-aware approach, Whedon (co-writer) and Goddard (co-writer, director) have separated themselves from the standard churn of horror films, and apart from the usual dose of suspense, lurid sexuality and blackly funny death scenes, they also succeed in keeping us guessing.

More than anything else though, the film is a delight for both classic and contemporary horror fans. Its funny-scary tone owes a direct - and acknowledged - debt to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, but it's also sprinkled with so many other references to the genre that spotting them would make for a good - though potentially deadly - drinking game.

There are too many of these to mention, and they shouldn't be spoilt either. But a running gag evoking the 'Ring' series is particularly welcome, and the 'explosive' finale is so gleefully violent it wouldn't be out of place in a Japanese manga.

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