Chris Hemsworth (Thor, 2011) heads up the band of teenagers/walking clichés who head off for a weekend of lasciviousness, fornication and generally behaving like morons in the sort of American backwoods deadend dwelling where cellphone signals are just the first thing to croak. The whooping teens check into a creeky hovel, eerily reminiscent of the shack in The Evil Dead (1981), leaving no doubt that things are about to get gorier than a nailbomb in an abattoir.
So far, so ‘meh,’ but Cabin…, produced by Joss Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard from a script by both, like Wes Craven’s game-changing Scream (1996), cunningly aims to eviscerate the horror genre, slyly mutilating it into horrific new shapes. We’re offered glimpses of white-collar desk-jockeys (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) cackling in some mysterious, hidden, hi-tech control booth, gleefully observing events via hidden cameras. As they make wagers and push magic buttons that make girls remove their tops, it becomes apparent that strings are being ingeniously pulled.
Like Beadle’s About reworked by John Carpenter, this is a fantastically compelling spin on horror standards. Wisecracking Whitford and Jenkins make for curiously amiable puppetmasters, dexterously maneuvering the teens into a bloodcurdling basement full of familiar supernatural MacGuffins (ominous puzzlebox, sinister ancient tome). Before you can squeal “Don’t read the Latin out loud!” all manner of nightmarish creatures are unleashed, obligingly relieving the kids of body parts in some inventively squelchy sequences.
Whedon and Goddard have a riot, toying with horror conventions, like introducing a dial that prompts the kids to nonsensically split up, and a ‘pheromone mist’ that hilariously compels them to initiate outdoors nookie.
It is a compelling funhouse ride of a movie, leaving us to ruminate over exactly what is going on, the Buffy creators spoonfeeding us just enough to keep things intriguing.
A twisty-turny treat, Cabin… is a kick up the backside to a stagnant, predictable genre, though it is so content with being clever, it often forgets to be scary. The ‘jump scares’ lack effectiveness, the foreboding atmosphere heavily diluted by all the sly nods and winks.
Packed full of idea and invention, this oddity manages to graffiti all over the horror rule book, but still falls victim to many of its stereotypes and failings. With its purposefully cheesy dialogue and cardboard cut-out characterisation, the filmmakers aren’t so much critiquing the genre’s conventions as simply pointing them out. As the puppeteers’ agenda becomes clear, the picture begins to suffocate under the weight of its own spectacular premise, resulting in a frankly bonkers, slightly unsatisfying crescendo that doesn’t entirely make sense.
Though not as smart as it thinks it is, Cabin... still manages to sink its blood-drenched hooks in deep, making up for its defects with a jaw-dropping, slaughterous final third that audaciously shoehorns in every horror movie staple you can imagine. Whatever Boogeyman hides in your closet, you’ll be sure to find it lurking within The Cabin in the Woods, and though it may not give you nightmares, you certainly won’t forget this creepshow in a hurry.