One of those movies I had to get to at some point.
A group of students goes for a weekend in a cabin, while we also see people manipulating the situation with enormous resources. Their personalities are changed to fit the common narrative used in these movies, but this is all done by bureaucrats who seem to spend a lot of time making this whole thing at least somewhat interesting for themselves.
While the idea behind the movie is fun and interesting, the true stars of the movie are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Well, I wouldn’t exactly want to call them stars, because they are so well-known as character actors, even though Jenkins actually has a nomination for an Oscar as the leading man (for Visitor) alongside his nomination for supporting actor (for Shape of the Water). They are just perfect. They have enough gravitas, but at the same time they also have that comedic ability, which shines in a movie like this. That balance is key here. The value these two bring to this movie (or other movies I’ve seen them in) is just incalculable (well, except maybe for the producers). Not the rest of the cast is bad. The two just shine.
But hey, the theme is the part anyone is interested in this movie, because like Scream (which we’ll get to later), this is a sort of end point for a genre. Of course, there have been unironic Evil Dead clones after this (including the inevitable, but surprisingly good, Evil Dead remake), but in general we have kind of understood that those themes in that context have now been played out. This is somewhat different from Scream, though. Scream feels like a natural ending to the whole thing, while The Cabin in the Woods is much wilder and imaginative. I’m not claiming that anyone could have come up with Scream, but it’s just one of those things that feel so obvious after someone did actually make it.
The Cabin in the Woods goes into another direction. Scream deals with how these movies might inspire us in unhealthy ways (although I doubt Wes Craven was really the kind of person who would have been worried about it), while The Cabin in the Woods is about deeper reasons we might be interested in these movies. What drives us to enjoy horror? Most of us don’t want to see violence in real life, but many are willing to laugh at kills on screen.
The way the characters describe these forces that want the kills within the movie makes them seem like Lovecraftian in nature, but the horror of the movie does not feel cosmic. I don’t think it would work in the context of a horror comedy anyhow. I don’t remember thinking about this when I started, but that could be an intereting study: What are the limitations of comedy horror compared to horror in general? Of course, there would be movies which break the rules, but you could still probably map them out in some way. A radar chart would be nice.
One additional meta-aspect is how the characters are manipuated into certain roles. The smart hunk can’t be smart in the narrative, so he is forced into being just a jock. The virgin is actually having an affair with her professor, but because a virgin is needed for audience, she becomes that, while the other girl is forced into becoming weirdly slutty. This is especially prominent with Chris Hemsworth (the aforementioned smart hunk), who has had a great career as eye candy. I can’t claim to know him, but he seems to be smart at least based on his abilities with comedy (which I will concede isn’t necessarily much, but it isn’t easy being funny on screen). He makes plenty of money doing this, so he is probably fine, but it’s still an interesting look at stereotyping. When this movie was filmed, no-one could have known how big he would be in the future, but he looks the part, so he was put into that little niche, but it’s also pointed at.
Anyhow, while Whedon’s failing reputation has cast it’s shadow on this film as well, it is an interesting look at the themes (and he didn’t even direct this). It’s weird that the movie wasn’t going to get a release initially (of course, MGM went bankrupt and they needed to find a buyer, but it is a quality movie). Sure, it might have been difficult to market as there aren’t real precedents (which is kind of a sad look at the state of the business), but it’s also a horror movie with young, beautiful people in it. Surely, selling that can’t be too hard?