As an exercise in metatextuality, The Cabin in the Woods really only rises above mere cleverness once, when the small band of attractive college undergraduates gather in the living room of their rustic soon-to-be deathtrap to play a game of truth or dare. The one christened as the dumb blonde of the group is dared to make out with the taxidermied head of a wolf. The wolf—surely a big and bad one, before the axe fell—has teeth so sharp and eyes so bright one is tempted to think its mouth will snap closed, devouring our poor heroine. It’s a nice bit of tension, yes, but its jaws never clamp down. Instead, this young, blonde woman makes out with the head of a dead animal. She has three audiences: Her friends, the men and women watching on monitors from an undisclosed location, and you. Presumably, all three are titillated, and for precisely the same reason: Something pristine, unspoiled, and innocent (remember, blonde hair is a trigger for sympathy) is being deflowered by something wild, merciless, and foreboding.
Horror films, particularly the kind called to the floor by The Cabin in the Woods, are much more about titillation than anything truly frightening, taking their characters to the verge of something sexual before its deranged, mutilated, machete-wielding chaperone cleaves an offending member from the group, culling away the most deviant until we are left with something pure, something virginal; our Final Girl. She may be scarred, but she’ll be left intact. It’s this formula that The Cabin in the Woods is obsessed with, that it posits as being the same no matter what the circumstance. Five friends—the virgin (Kristen Connolly), the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the promiscuous one (Anna Hutchison), the stoner (Fran Kranz), and the smart one (Jesse Williams)—pile into an RV and drive out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. They think they’re going to have the time of their lives.
Instead, it appears as though they’re part of an ongoing, deadly scientific experiment meant to test the limits of free will. Miles away, in an undisclosed location, two scientists—Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) sit behind an immense console of knobs and dials. One adjusts the lighting, one sprays pheromones into the air, one releases a hatch that leads to the cellar. It is their objective to get the five into that cellar, where the prop department of b-movie studio has exploded, strewing bits and pieces of every imaginable horror film on the desks, walls, and floors. The scientists gather to watch the kids pick, placing bets on what sadistic, oddly-American sort of horror story will befall them. When the virgin and the smart one read a Latin incantation from the diary of a girl who belonged to a pain cult, their fate, it seems, is sealed.
But remember, the scientists say that their experiment is one that tests the limits of free will. Or is it merely that they’re trying to simulate free will? In either case, why do the scientists start freaking out when the students start effectively fighting back against the zombified pain cult that’s stalking them in the woods? What’s this about rigging the tunnel they drove through to explode? What was it the weird gas station attendant said, “The lambs have come to the killing floor?” Yes, The Cabin in the Woods has quite a twist to it, but if you’re observant—and the movie practically begs close observation—its as surprisingly natural as the idea that every horror movie functions as a complex experiment. It’s just that the experiment is a highly-stylized version of the Stanley Milgram experiment wherein we, the audience, are asked to continue torturing the poor people on the screen. We do, but not because we’re obeying an authority figure, like Milgram’s participants who continued turning up the voltage on the unseen person one room over. We keep torturing these people because we like it.
But The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t want you walking out of the theatre feeling like a creep; it wants you to know that you’re the smartest guy in the room. It expects you to know the tropes, to laugh when the movie explains why the dumb blonde is dumb, how the alpha male got to be such a prick, the purpose of the gas station attendant. It helps that The Cabin in the Woods is genuinely funny, especially since it’s not in the least bit concerned about being genuinely frightening, even when it devolves into a mash-up of sub-genres, CGI, and gore. What it does very well is develop likable characters you don’t want to see killed, Dana (the virgin) and Marty (the stoner) especially. This is quite unlike most of the horror films it spoofs, where a group of generic, attractive, soon-to-be-screaming young men and women take a wrong turn at the creepy gas station and are set upon by the killer. It’s odd that the horror-comedy is less cynical about the role of plausible human characters than movies where the killer is the main draw, but again, The Cabin in the Woods wants you to feel good about yourself, wants you to think “I really liked that girl” as opposed to “those kills weren’t creative enough.
The only thing The Cabin in the Woods is really guilty of is spelling everything out to the point that the film’s last shot is one of those underwhelming, CGI-laden spectacles that actually falls quite short of real spectacle. Yes, at a certain point, you know it’s coming, you anticipate it, but really, wouldn’t it be nice—really nice—if a movie like this left something, anything, to the imagination? I understand that one runs the risk of not giving the audience what it wants, but in the end, that’s what The Cabin in the Woods is pointing out, that, in the service of giving horror fans a good show, the genre has lost the ability to truly scare anybody. The ending could have been one more turn of the screw. Instead, it’s an odd little moment of retreat, a small admission that The Cabin in the Woods maybe isn’t as smart as we’d like to think.
The Cabin in the Woods. Directed by Drew Goddard. With Kristin Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), and Bradley Whitford (Hadley). Released April 13, 2012, by Lionsgate.