Spoiler Alert: A Review of “The Cabin in the Woods”

I loved Cabin in the Woods. I found it funny, clever, and overall a boatload of fun.

But here’s the problem: That’s absolutely all that I can say about it without spoiling the whole thing! So here’s my warning to you. If you’ve seen this film, feel free to read on. If you haven’t, BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL READING THIS REVIEW. I am venturing into spoiler territory later on. Right now I’m speaking to you not as a critic, but as a friend. And person-to-person, I will be upset with you if you decide to read those spoilers. I’m not bullshitting here, and I really need to you trust me on this one. You do not want to be spoiled on this film, and doing so is, unfortunately, very easy. Don’t even look up the movie on Wikipedia, it’ll be ruined instantly. So this review is going to work a little differently than most. The first half will be spoiler-free. After that section is over, you will have the option to either read on to my thoughts on more spoilery material, or preserve the film for yourself. I highly recommend the latter.

But enough tiptoeing around the issue. Let’s get into the meat of the thing.

NO SPOILER SECTION:

Cabin in the Woods is not what you think it is. If all you’ve seen is the ad campaign (or even as little as a plot synopsis), you probably think that this is a standard “teens get butchered by monsters” horror movie with classic Whedon dialogue thrown in for good measure. You probably think, just by virtue of its rote simplicity, of its cliched, hackneyed premise, that this movie can’t possibly be good.

You aren’t getting even half of the picture. Not even a fraction. There is so much more going on here that just the opening scene will throw you for a loop. And of course, that’s entirely intentional on the part of screenwriter Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard. They have you in the palm of your hands from the first frame, even if you don’t realize it until the end. In fact, from what I understand, some people never got that at all, and they didn’t understand that this wasn’t supposed to be a standard hack-and-slash horror film. These people aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed.

In fact, this isn’t a horror movie at all. There isn’t a single moment in it where it is deliberately trying to be scary. It parodies the things that scare audiences, and it satirizes classic movie monsters, but the movie never tries to scare the people watching it. Some people apparently took this as a betrayal of filmmaker/audience trust, but I appreciated it a great deal. Cabin in the Woods doesn’t want to hurt you. It doesn’t want you to be scared. It puts audience entertainment above everything else. Well, almost everything…

My first thought when leaving the theater was, “That wasn’t a movie, that was an essay. It was a dissertation on horror movie cliches.” But that’s not a bad thing at all. Because it balanced the analytical aspect of this movie (and believe me when I say that “analytical” is not the best word, because the movie isn’t a film school study or something) with the entertainment aspects, I could appreciate how smart the movie was being while at the same time laughing my butt off. The spiritual predecessor to this film, Wes Craven’s Scream, did the same thing with a slightly different genre, but Cabin in the Woods succeeds by taking things a million times farther than Craven ever did. And when I say “a million,” I’m not exaggerating. The third act of this film is one of the craziest, most balls-to-the-wall finales in the history of movies. Whedon and Goddard pull out all the stops, and then invent more stops just to pull those out too. Every promise made throughout the film is fulfilled, even the ones that you didn’t know were made. That’s the ultimate brilliance of Cabin in the Woods; it’s one of those movies that doesn’t reveal its own message and motive until the eleventh hour. It forces you to watch it again, looking for the clues that you didn’t pick up on the first time. The only film that I can think of that recently pulled that off was Fight Club, and believe me, I don’t invoke Fight Club lightly. The last half hour itself will have fans freeze-framing for years to come, and once you see it, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

What’s great about the construction of this film is the way that it makes you completely aware of how ridiculous horror movies really are. For a while, everything that we see at the titular cabin could be cut out and presented as a horror movie in its own right. No one would question it, and it would come off like your average, run-of-the-mill slasher flick. It’s the juxtaposition of that movie and the “other” movie going on at the same time which executes Whedon and Goddard’s message. It forces us to turn inwardly, to laugh at our own stupidity, however uncomfortable that prospect becomes. It makes us think about our own tastes in movies. “Is this really good for me? What kind of person takes pleasure in this?” Maybe the delayed release of Cabin was a bit of a problem, considering that it was made in a time where we got a new torture porn film every couple months, and in 2012 that trend has pretty much died down (and been replaced by found footage horror; can’t wait to see the meta takedown of that genre). Will it survive years from now, after the genre that it satirizes is well and truly buried? Last year, Scream 4 proved that the Scream franchise was no longer relevant. However, I don’t think there will be a sequel to Cabin in the Woods. It’s a film that can stand on its own with considerable might. It came too late to kill the genre, but in twenty years it will look like it did. The reason? It probably could have. 

SPOILER SECTION:

ALRIGHT, I’M SERIOUS NOW. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE, NOW IS YOUR CUE TO LEAVE. GO LOOK AT PICTURES OF CATS OR SOMETHING. GET DISTRACTED. FORGET THAT THIS PART OF THE REVIEW EXISTS.

UNTIL YOU SEE THE MOVIE, AT LEAST. THEN PLEASE COME BACK. PLEASE. POPCORN CULTURE LOVES YOU.

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Alright guys, time to get all spoilery up in here.

Remember up there when I said that something was my “first thought upon exiting the theater”? It wasn’t, but I couldn’t spoil those poor saps. They don’t know any better. No, my actual first thought was the first part of a crazy theory that would form over the course of the next hour. Once it was formed, however, I realized that the theory wasn’t crazy at all. In fact, it seems to be the accepted interpretation. Here it is anyway, for the sake of clarity.

The entire thing is a metaphor for horror movies. And I don’t mean that in the “it was so meta and self-referential” way. I mean that in the literal sense. The film itself, as a whole, forest for the trees, is one big metaphor. The movie, as we find out in the end, is about a ritual sacrifice that takes place yearly (I think? Not made clear) wherein five teenagers fitting a group of five archetypes are killed by some bizarre creature that they provoked into murder. The characters at the cabin weren’t just “in a horror movie” in-universe. Their universe was representative of the creation of a horror movie. This film has two writers: Whedon and Goddard. There are two characters in the film who represent them: Sitterson and Hadley (I loved both of them, by the way. Funny characters, great performances from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). Sitterson and Hadley “write” the events of the “movie” that they are creating. They insert plot devices to change the directions of characters and the like. This filmmaking metaphor is only further amplified when you realize that the Sigourney Weaver’s character is named “the Director”.

So what’s my point here? I think that Whedon and Goddard were making the point that we, the audience are the Ancient Gods. The “ritual” being created? It’s the consistent, repetitive string of horror movies that get released year after year, despite being no different from one another plot or character-wise. Whedon and Goddard, in a way, retcon this stupidity by re-imagining it as a ritual that is necessary for the world to survive. It’s a humorous way of taking a shot at the genre while pretending to “praise” it. The film has been criticized for its comedy being too broad, but I found it to be bitterly sarcastic in a very subtle way. “Oh man, thank goodness for those terrible, endlessly repetitive horror movies. Without them, who knows where we would be?” In fact, when we cut to the ritual taking place in Japan, there is no trace of these “five stereotypical characters”. That ritual is playing by the rules of Japanese horror, with a creepy little girl ghost who has hair covering her face. But Cabin in the Woods is set in America, so we see the game played by American rules, just as they are in real life. So movie studios “sacrifice” these hot young teens to us every year, and they have to be stereotyped and cliched because, deep down, we couldn’t handle it if they weren’t. The movie might be making a subtle point about the evolving nature of tropes like the “Final Girl” with the fact that none of these characters actually fit the stereotypes, and that the group downstairs actually has to change them to make them fit. I haven’t thought a lot about this, but I don’t think that this was at the forefront of their minds. The main point is this idea of horror movies being a ritual in and of themselves.

I loved the dark ending. Lesser movies would have wimped out in the final scene, and allowed the world to be saved by some loophole in the rules. I thought it was great that the movie payed off the events of its last half hour by just saying, “You know what? Screw it. Let’s end the world, because it doesn’t deserve to survive.” The final act is nothing but a great big serving of comeuppance for the people downstairs who took some sort of joy in murdering innocent kids. A movie that has that extended, bloody sequence without the final, world-ending piece of the puzzle is a great big cheat. Congrats to Cabin for making the best possible decision.

If you boil it down, that’s what makes Cabin so successful. It always makes the best decision possible in every circumstance. Sure, I can think of ways to change it, but even then I don’t think that those changes would necessarily result in a better movie. It would be different, sure, but if Cabin in the Woods wanted to be any different, it would be. That’s how smart it is. In fact, it’s better than that. It’s a smart movie that knows how smart it is, but isn’t egotistical about it. I never got the impression that the movie was rubbing its cleverness in my face. Frankly, I didn’t need it to. The film’s greatness was readily apparent. So well done, Cabin in the Woods. It doesn’t matter if stuff like this has been done before, because it has never been done so well.

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Published by

Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

4 thoughts on “Spoiler Alert: A Review of “The Cabin in the Woods””

  1. Fight Club did a similar thing by revealing the message toward the end, sure, but so have quite a few others. I think Donnie Darko falls into that category, along with Eternal Sunshine, The Truman Show, Moon.

    Anyway, cool review – interesting choice to do it half-spoiler-y and half-non-spoiler-y.

      1. I understand – I think The Cabin in the Woods was particularly interesting because half of the allegory I totally missed until much later.

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