Anyone turning up a late enough to miss the opening of The Cabin in the Woods would believe they were about to enjoy a typical horror movie. In their lateness they would miss the introductory scene in which a pair of NASA-looking technicians (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) discuss life and marital woes before being joined by a fellow technician (Amy Acker). But more importantly, they are underground, it would appear, in some kind of top secret, off-the-grid, military research facility. We are given no definite answers at this point. But the fact remains that the audience, right from the start, knows they are in for something new and strange.
Then we have the title card. ‘The Cabin in the Woods’. After which, the film begins a parallel storyline following five twenty-something coeds on their trip to a—wait for it—cabin in the woods. The group consists of the archetypal hero, Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Dana and Jules (Kristen Connolly and Anna Hutchinson), comic-relief stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz), and the mature intellectual, Holden (Jesse Williams). When they stop for gas they encounter their first horror-movie stock character. In this case, a bumbling gas station attendant who knows more than he is willing to let on.
From this point on, the plot twists and turns so much that it’s best not to go into too much detail, for fear of spoiling anything. But suffice to say, the movie shirks the genre at every turn, sometimes playing the cliches for laughs. Other times ‘Cabin’ uses cliches to show the over-played absurdities of many horror tropes. Yet even with the genre subversion, the audience gets to participate in all the horror-movie pastimes. Choosing which character will die first. Guessing the next monster. Deciding who will be the last surviving character. But beneath the surface, screenwriter Joss Whedon and long-time collaborator and director Drew Goddard are in search of deeper meaning. By offering the parallel ‘labratory’ story, which runs along side the ‘Cabin’ story, Whedon and Goddard allow themselves to tinker with the very cliches that make up the horror genre, much like Whitford and Jenkins (the technicians from the opening scene). Whedon pushes his characters into situations which test their ability to make decisions under duress and ultimately attempts uncover to what degree individual free will actually exists.
It seems Whedon is trying not only to make a loving yet biting satire of horror cliches, but instead to deconstruct the genre, in order build a sort of puzzle for horror fans to solve. The web of narrative, the parallel storylines, the twists and turns, and ultimately the final upheaval later in the film speak not only to a deep love of the horror genre, but also a desire to see it evolve and improve. Keeping with the tradition of earlier meta-horror films, ‘Cabin’ finds Whedon pulling on the same postmodern thread that Scream began to unravel years before, but to greater effect. At the core this is appears to be Whedon’s attempt to flip over the board, look at the scattered pieces, and remake the very conception of a horror movie.
In the end, it asks the same question of its characters as it does of the audience, “Why go into the dark, when it’s impossible to know the consequences?”