Cabin in the Woods
One of my favourite films as a kid, and right through to now, is Sam Raimi's Evil Dead. It was probably the first horror film I ever saw, and it began a bit of a love with the genre that has stayed with me through many awful films since. Cabin in the Woods is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look at horror, which tonally feels similar to Evil Dead. It has an astronomically bigger budget and far more household names in it, but at its core, it feels as if Drew Goddard might have made it as a bit of a love letter to Sam Raimi. This isn't the case according to the man himself, who says that actually, his biggest inspiration was growing up in New Mexico, a place where people with very extraordinary jobs, such as building nuclear weapons with the potential to end the world, would just go about their daily business as if nothing unusual was going on. In hindsight, that kind of absurdist take on day-to-day life is one of the stronger aspects of the film.
The premise starts with a very simple idea, one that's almost a trope of horror nowadays. Five friends go on a trip to a cabin in the woods and they get more than they bargained for, and now they're going to find out the truth about what this cabin actually is. It's nothing we haven't seen before up until a point where it balloons into something very original, which is where Drew Goddard's background in New Mexico comes in. What we end up with, and there are spoilers here so continue at your own peril, is a kind of John Landis meets The Truman Show by way of the horror genre. What's actually going on is that the cabin is monitored and controlled by a contingent of remote lab workers. The other usual horror tropes, such as pre-marital sex as a deathly pastime, are explained by them releasing mind-altering drugs into the cabin that increase libido and, presumably as a result, reduce critical thinking. As a humourous commentary on the genre, it's such a good idea, and it almost exists in the same realm as Scream in terms of presenting a self-aware horror film that has something to say about the films it's borne from.
Weirdly enough, I almost wish it was made with a lower budget and that it could have been presented with rougher edges. It's very polished, and the luxury of having $30 million to work with comes across in how pristine the cinematography is and the actors it was able to attract, but it almost misses something by not encountering the problems that horror films usually do by not having a great amount of money to work with. What I mean by that, is that in Cabin in the Woods we have a film that takes horror's most endearing tropes, and in explaining how they could possibly come to be realistic, it presents them in an absurdist light that we can all laugh at and have fun with. If in making the film Drew Goddard was having to meet and overcome the same barriers from a production point of view that the films that this is satirising had to, perhaps we would have gotten something even richer in commentary and comedy. I don't want this to take too much away from the film that we did get, however, as it is just a "nice to have" at best.
There's a really nice contrast in the performances of the actors on either side of the film. The friends visiting the cabin (Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, and Jesse Williams particularly) are your typical slasher teenagers. They're shallow in thought and led by their genitals despite wanting to do the right thing, and ultimately they're easy victims because of that. What's interesting about the casting is that, if they were older, it's absolutely believable that any of them could've got the Johnny Depp role in a film like A Nightmare on Elm Street. The lab workers, however, are much older, with the two main characters played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. They're effectively audience conduits. They've seen it all before, and even though they're watching people die, all they can do to pass the time is take bets on how it's going to happen. They almost exude a Statler and Waldorf energy, and that's something that's instantly relatable to a seasoned genre fan.
Cabin in the Woods is an intelligent take on horror, that's allowed to satirise it because it genuinely does feel like it comes from a place of love and adoration for it. In another world, perhaps this is held in as high a regard for the genre as other modern classics such as Scream, and it's a shame that in this one it seems to have been passed by in discussions about which films are important to the genre. I wonder if this was realised today whether it might ride the wave of a new trend of post-meta films such as Bodies Bodies Bodies, but fittingly it won't be the only horror film in history that was maybe a few years ahead of its time.