Horror needed The Cabin in the Woods.

I don’t necessarily mean it needed another self-reflective, meta, deconstructive look at the genre and its various cliches. One of those every few years is just fine, thank you. But what it did need was a slap-in-the-face reminder of just how good, original and powerful the genre can be, particularly at the theatrical level. Sure, there have been decent enough horror films over the last few years, but when was the last game-changer? The last film with this sort of word of mouth? The last “knocks you right out of your seat, you can’t believe how great it is” masterpiece? I know some will point to Paranormal Activity, but that was just a more popular and better-received version of a sub-genre already going at the time, and all it really did was unleash a wave of predictable sequels and wannabes. The Cabin in the Woods is something else entirely. This is Next Level film-making.

And now I am faced with the challenge of all those who review this film – how to do so without spoiling any of its awesome secrets? Not surprisingly, there have been some critics with a piss-poor attitude that have been more than happy to give away plot details in their reviews, but thankfully – and somewhat surprisingly – they have been mostly ignored by an open-minded horror fan community, and mostly outnumbered by critics willing to keep the movie’s twists and turns to themselves in order to ensure viewers get the full experience. It’s been amazing to see so many fight to keep things spoiler free in this more cynical “let’s just ruin everything” Internet age (and especially commendable of the filmmakers and those in the know to keep the film’s surprises a secret even as it sat on the shelf for two years). I don’t want to come along and ruin that. So I guess I’ll just give you the basics.

And really, you’ve heard and seen these basics before. Five college kids load into an RV and trek to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of drinking, partying and general debauchery. They seem to be your typical stock horror characters – Curt, the jock (Thor‘s Chris Hemsworth); Jules, the bleach-blond slut (Anna Hutchison); Dana, the good-girl (Kristen Connolly); Holden, the sensitive nerd (Jesse Williams); and Marty, the wise-cracking stoner (Fran Kranz). They’re just five young people enjoying life…but they don’t know about the cabin’s basement, and the horrible fate they might bring on themselves if they descend into it.

But, ah, all is not as it seems. In terms of spoilers, I’m only willing to go as far as to say these kids are not as in control of their own weekend as they might believe. A mysterious organization is clearly playing puppet-master, controlling the events that befall the group. That much is made clear in both the trailer and the film’s opening scenes, so don’t freak out on me. I do have to stop here, though, because to give anything else away would be a huge injustice to the joy of watching it all unravel as the film proceeds. Suffice to say, the mysterious organization is just the tip of the iceberg, and though you might think that’s enough of a twist to keep things interesting, you have no idea how crazy and twisted the movie will get as motivations and plot-details are revealed, all building up to one of the most insane and unforgettable third-acts in horror movie history (not giving anything specific away, but there’s a moment in the third act involving a character pushing a button that should send most horror fans into a near-orgasmic state of glee).

The film’s mind-bending narrative is enhanced by an almost unfairly intelligent script full of hilarious, whip-smart dialogue (as you would expect from Joss Whedon) and a fantastic cast that knows how to deliver it. All of the aforementioned actors are excellent in their roles, particularly Kranz, who takes an archetype that is usually unbearably annoying in most horror movies (the funny stoner) and actually makes him the most relatable, likable character of the bunch. But the real show-stealers are veteran actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, as two….but, no, I guess I shouldn’t tell, huh? Let’s just say they know more about what’s really going on than the film’s other main characters, and that they make one hell of a comedic team. And the film is very funny – filmmakers and cast alike have said they see it as much as a comedy as it is a horror movie. Though, gorehounds, rest easy – when the movie needs to “get red,” it GETS RED. This is not a movie afraid to earn its R-rating. Again, that third act….man, I wish I could tell you about it!

Like the best “meta” takes on horror, The Cabin in the Woods is a love letter to the genre that both pays loving tribute to its predictable cliches while at the same time exposing them for the laziness they are. But this is even better than something like Scream or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, both of which were great fun, but also inevitably (and purposely, to be fair) fell right into the same tropes they were poking fun at. Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard (who also makes his directorial debut) use the familiar template to both deconstruct the genre and push it to giddy new heights. Seriously, there will be years worth of discussion coming out of this film, involving what it is really saying about the genre, its fans, its cliches, it’s everything. I look forward to participating in these discussions, but to do so in a public forum will have to wait for some time from now, when spoiler-concerns are no longer a justifiable worry. For now, I’m just telling you to see it. If you’re a horror fan, you have to see it. If you love original film-making, you have to to see it. Heck, if you have a pulse, you should probably be checking this one out.

One last thought – there’s already been a lot of speculation about what kind of effect this film will have on horror, with many claiming it will be impossible for the genre to just go right back to the same sort of cliches exposed in this movie (apparently, those people aren’t that familiar with how Hollywood works). I’ve already said I think this is a game-changer, but not in the same way that things like Scream or The Blair Witch Project were. Those films led to a slew of sequels and similar films, usually with diminishing returns. The Cabin in the Woods is NOT a movie that will be easy to copy, and I’m pretty damn sure it doesn’t leave any room for a sequel. Instead, I hope its immediate effect is to light a fire under the ass of all aspiring and working horror filmmakers, to remind them there’s still room for daring originality and creativity, even within the genre’s most tired and overdone sub-genres. The Cabin in the Woods is an instant horror masterpiece – let’s also hope it’s the beginning of a glorious new Golden Age for the genre.

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