Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of scrolling through social media, getting bombarded by click bait articles about which companies are really the illuminati while their corporate sponsors harvest information on which bathroom tissue you prefer. Oh who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? I mean, other than the people who are terrified of them. For the most part, we go about our daily lives, worried less about things like chem trails or hidden cameras than we do things like am “I going to have to go for lunch second” and “if I catch this bus, will I get home in time to catch that show before making dinner”. Normally. More recently, our major concerns have been more along the lines of how to make dinner out of whatever scraps were left at the most picked over shelves we’ve seen in the grocery store in most of our lifetimes. Point being, we don’t usually worry about a great big old government conspiracy looming over our heads because such things would likely drive most people insane worrying about this kind of thing all the time. No really, you would probably go a bit out there if you thought someone was watching your every move. Well, this week’s film asks about what would happen if something watching you was happening on a whole new level.
The idea of someone watching our every step is a staple in horror but usually, it’s pretty localized. For certain horror icons, they might just be after one person. Michael Myers watches and stalks Laurie Strode, and occasionally her extended family, depending on whether or not you are down with the whole Thorn cult thing. Even that is rather specific to one person or one set of people, though. Other titans of the genre aren’t always that finely focused but they do tend to have their limits. Kruger watches the kids on Elm Street, and by proxy their neighborhood, through their dreams. Jason watches Camp Crystal Lake and anyone who wanders into his domain is likely to get stalked and killed. That last one gets a little foggy when Jason decided to take a holiday over in New York but this does bring up a kind of failing of that movie and one that is kind of interesting about the one we’re watching this week.
Looking at these films, and most of the ones that we see regularly, the horror happens at home or somewhere that is specific. It’s possible that it can leak out into the greater world but that’s a lot more difficult to pull off because of a kind of macrocosm effect. It’s true that Pennywise was terrifying for the kids in the Losers Club even after they grew up but even as adults, their fears had to pull them back to Derry to deal with it. The thing with that film is that it managed to branch out the tiniest bit but again, it was localized to the Losers and Henry Bowers. They understood and felt the power of that fear Pennywise represented outside of Derry’s boundaries but to the greater world, it didn’t matter. Circling back to Jason’s New York adventure, despite the fact that the film promised that he’d take Manhattan, his antics really only concern a bunch of teenagers on a boat going to New York. The whole of the killing action mostly takes place on the boat and when they do get to the bigger city, they are almost immediately confronted with other threats, including one that Jason manages to decimate, accidentally making him side with his victims for a few seconds. It’s not an accident that Jason’s reign of terror ends basically by the hand of the big city itself and the last survivors standing are left to wander a much wider world than the one they’d left. The slasher doesn’t add up to much when compared to the great big realities of Times Square and all the things that come with it.
Now that probably seemed like a bit of a lot of information that you might not feel like you need but it’s relevant in that our movie of the week weirdly manages to accomplish both this localized stalking in a tiny setting and a macrocosm world at the same time. It kind of pulls a huge u-turn in the plot to make it work but the end result is so very worth the misdirection. Brought to us by the man who gave us years of monster hunting and pretty damn compelling plotlines, Joss Whedon, tonight we’re doing a dive into a film that doesn’t get near enough love. A love letter to the genre and full of great little twists, tonight we’re giving some much deserved attention to 2011’s The Cabin in the Woods.
On the face of it, the story is pretty simple to start. Sure, there’s some opener wherein there’s a whole lot of junk talk at a government facility that no one is meant to understand but, as audience members, especially horror fans, we already know we aren’t supposed to understand this just yet. It’s just there to make sure you know about it before moving on to our main plot. We have five young college students getting ready for a long weekend away. If you’re getting all kinds of familiar vibes from this, you’re going to want to brace yourself because there’s more to come. Our five man band consists of a young woman who has just come out of a difficult break up, her hot blonde friend and roommate, the pretty girl’s long time boyfriend (played by Thor himself), the smart but sexy love interest for our main character and the goofy stoner to round out the cast. Where have you seen this before, you might be wondering. Well, if you’re a long time reader around here, this probably sounds an awful lot like the people we just saw in Dead Snow, released a couple of years earlier. (And just in case anyone was worried, no I’m not unaware that that film, and this one, was very obviously paying tribute to the greatness that was the original Evil Dead.) And much like our intrepid med students of that film, our wholesome group of red shirts are off to enjoy a little bit of down time, relaxing in a great penthouse suite in a really fancy hotel for a staycation they won’t soon forget. Of course, they aren’t. One of their cousins owns a fucking cabin in the woods and like the eternal bug zapper of the horror world, no one in college can manage to resist the siren call of getting bitten by mosquitoes while taking a piss in the woods.
Our weird government agents show up again a few times to check on our prize winning decision makers and by now, we know there’s something more up with them but again, seasoned horror fans know better than to get to worried about that just yet. Besides, plot by numbers is happening and government workers don’t fit into the formula. (If you’re wanting to know more about why plot by numbers happens and why horror fans love it so much, there’s a couple dollars worth of a write up on Patreon available as of the time this goes live.) Our crew gets accosted by some old grump who makes some snide and shitty remarks and makes some ominous statements that you’ve never heard in every horror movie set in the woods before this. Ignoring our resident NPC, the five of them continue on to get settled in the dusty old cabin, getting ready for what is going to be party time for both characters and audience members in short order. By now, there’s some minor details that have cropped up that deviate from the norm but nothing that shows its hand too quickly.
From the time they get to the cabin on, however, the plot with the government agents begins its climb to the crest and you’re about to see how the two intertwine. The pay off goes entirely both where you think it should and absolutely not where you were expecting at all, if you go in blind. I won’t go further into the story because if you are unfamiliar, I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s far more fun if you don’t know what’s coming and even if it doesn’t spoil the rewatch value, I will say that you only get to experience the first time once and it’s worth it to go in and allow the story to take you on the ride it intends without knowing where you end up. If you have had the plot spoiled by now, please don’t take this as it’s been ruined because the twist does have to be experienced and it’s just as badass as it is the first time around.
I’m going to forego the usual character analysis because it does tie into the ultimate twist of the film but I will say that if you are thinking that these people I’ve described all sound incredibly vague, familiar and downright cliche, you are totally right. Even just calling them red shirts, you already know kind of what to expect. The thing is, this is what makes this film brilliant and why it was so much fun to watch. That might sound kind of counter intuitive because there’s nothing really brilliant about relying on cliches. After all, this is what most film critics will decry when it comes to most horror films because of exactly what I’ve said before. We know this story and the trajectory is predictable as fuck. That said, Whedon is a great filmmaker and he knows his shit. He also knows his audience and it shows in how he cast the film, what the characters say and how the action plays out. Yes it’s cliche but everything about this builds that expectation that you already had. It makes it so that when the plot runs off the rails, the pay off is all the better and so much more satisfying. It also gives the filmmakers so much to play with when you know where things are heading only to have it snatched away. And there’s something more to these cliches than just what your average rip off of a popular film might pull.
A good portion of this film is about being seen and having people watching them. The reveal of the fact that the five would be corpses are being monitored isn’t really that big of a deal because they expose this rather early one. What’s interesting and why I like this film so much as is that it’s not just the players in the film that are being seen. One of the things that Whedon does so well in this film is recognize who his audience is and there are so many easter eggs in there for you of the horror fan camp. This might have been botched in a different film and certainly, there’s a limit to how much the camera can wink at the audience before it starts to feel a little bit like it’s overstepping its cheeky boundaries but this one still manages to feel genuine despite being fairly crammed with eggs for you to find. I know that this was seen as being a little too far by some critics but I really don’t agree. As I said, this film is about being seen and the meta aspect of the movie wouldn’t work as well without the audience being a part of that, specifically if Whedon didn’t know how to play us with the references. Our expectation is a huge part of that and it both respects the hell out of what we know and uses it to tease us with the ultimate twist. And the part that I will argue separates it from just goofy pandering is the fact that it plays into the actual plot. It’s not just references to a cabin in the woods in that one film (or all those films that came after it), but an actual plot device that does further the story. The writing really doesn’t let us down here and I give them full props for what they did.
And for those of you who are wondering, why yes there is a good dose of humor in this film. Whedon is known, and sometimes criticized, for his banter when it comes to dialogue. This was a staple for him all throughout the Buffy series but while admittedly it could be a little much sometimes, it really isn’t bad in this film. While there are moments that you are fully aware of who wrote this, I still think that the characters are well done and the things that they say and do aren’t arbitrary posturing. In fact, the premise of the film really leans into this kind of writing style. There are moments that are hilarious because of it and it doesn’t take away from the overall narrative or stick out poorly. It also facilitates some of the things needed to carry some of those subtle hints of what’s coming, which really affect the way you see it the second time around when you know what’s coming.
This is a bit of a shorter review this time around but, there’s a lot that I want to gloss over if anyone hasn’t seen it. Again, spoilers aren’t a deal breaker but going by my own experience with this and how much fun I had the first time, I really don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who is able to go in blind. And, as is pretty obvious, I am highly recommending that you watch this film. The Cabin in the Woods is fun. I will say that seasoned horror fans might not find it very scary and that’s not entirely surprising. The main elements of the plot are predictable to a point and that does tend to take the scare factor out of a lot of what you already know so it’s not surprising on that end but even so, if you don’t know what’s coming, it can still be a lot of fun. And I really do mean it when I say that this film really feels like a love letter to those of us who love horror. Whedon knows those things we love. He includes them exactly because he knows what we recognize and what we value. It’s because of this that even though it wasn’t scaring the crap out of me, I still really enjoyed it. If you love the genre, it should be on your watch list for the fun of it. If you have friends whom you want to watch something with but they aren’t about to sit down to Hereditary with you, this one will likely be a little more up their alley.
And with that, there goes another Friday Nightmare Review. Thank you for joining me and if you are loving all these weird films that I dig out, consider donating to my Patreon. For as little as a dollar a month, you can get all the site content, including these reviews as well as book reviews and story updates, all before anyone else. And for a little more, you get exclusive extras like extra reviews, more book chats and updates and previews of things that are coming up on the site soon. And if, in these unstable times, that is not something you can do, coming back every week and sharing helps far more than you know. I appreciate everyone who enjoys sitting down to a new movie with me every week. And with that, keep an eye out for each other, don’t touch weird things you find in old houses, stay out of the woods and here’s wishing you a week of pleasant screams.