When Joss Whedon introduced The Cabin in the Woods to a rowdy, friendly, huge crowd at the Paramount Theater on the opening night of the South by Southwest Film Festival, he explained that one of the challenges of marketing the film is that you really can't say anything about what happens in it. And he begged everyone in the audience not to say anything about what happens in it, either.
It was a tall order for 1,200 screaming festival attendees who had waited in sometimes heavy rain in a line that more than circled the block. They were there for Whedon — as the excited response to his appearance on stage suggested — and for Drew Goddard, who directed Cabin and previously wrote Cloverfield.
Now, when you hear that Whedon says you're supposed to be surprised by what happens in the film, you might be a little skeptical, or you might write it off as buzz manufacturing, because it looks from the trailers like you kind of know what happens in it. Friends at a creepy cabin, something wicked this way comes, that sort of thing. Perhaps a little meta-commentary in the Scream vein, perhaps a few tweaks to the formula, but you basically know the story, right? Not at all. I assure you that when Whedon tells you that the marketing does not even explain what the movie is about, he is not lying. The trailer is giving you a formula movie; The Cabin in the Woods is basically another story entirely, which serves to upend that formula — making fun of it, criticizing it, analyzing it, and having a really, really good time.
I'm not going to tell you how that's accomplished either, not as a favor to the filmmakers, but because I'm already sad that by the time it opens in April, few of you will probably have the opportunity to see the film knowing as little about it as we did last night, and I don't want to make that worse.
The formula portion of the film — the part you already know about — goes like this: A pretty young woman (Kristen Connolly) goes off for a weekend trip with four friends. They are, as the rules of the genre provide, her more adventurous, sexy friend who's always telling her to loosen up (Anna Hutchison); the attractive guy she's just met (Jesse Williams); her friend's big, affable, athletic boyfriend (Chris Hemsworth); and the group's wisecracking pothead pal (Fran Kranz). They head out to somebody's cousin's cabin. They even take a big RV that kids like this would almost definitely never take anywhere, but that's what this kind of movie calls for, so that's what you get. They meet an unfriendly local. Weird things begin to happen.
You have seen this movie, but you have not seen this movie.
For one thing, it also stars Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. That's right: Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. What are Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins doing in this, right? Exactly. I don't even want to tell you what they do or who they're playing (I can't! I really can't! You will have less fun if I do!), but they are both predictably terrific and perhaps unpredictably funny.
Cabin is sort of a ... horror-thriller-comedy-creepfest, where the horror elements are both legitimately scary and legitimately witty, but there's also a strong thread of commentary about what has become of the horror/thriller genre. It's well-known that Whedon created the character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in response to his frustration with the stereotypical helpless cheerleader in peril; this is an extension of that work. He and Goddard have done a fine job of making a scary, armrest-grabbing thriller while also making a comedy that provokes howling laughter and also making one that asks questions: What always happens in our horror films? Why those particular elements? What do they contain that we want to see? Is this the best we can do?
I have often told people that popular entertainment can be spoken of intelligently just like anything else, but you have to know it, just like anything else, and if you reflexively hate it and therefore don't touch it, you don't know it. To do what these guys are doing, you have to know genre film so well and have given it so much thought that you can crawl inside it and start to take it apart, to question why it's built as it is, to make an argument from it.
Horror movies, like the one the trailers make The Cabin in the Woods out to be, bring in enormous amounts of money. They are watched by huge numbers of people. They are a huge part of American film culture, for good or for ill. And what's impressive about The Cabin in the Woods is that it recognizes what's exhilarating and fun about that genre and represents an exceptionally good example of it — the wisecracking pothead really is about 50 times as funny as that stock character generally is, to give just one example — but it also serves up a dollop of cultural criticism.
Now, with all that said, The Cabin in the Woods is not school. The SXSW crowd — admittedly primed and excited and eager for the film to be good — was not studying. They were whooping, cheering, laughing, gasping and, from all appearances, generally enormously entertained. I think I can say, without ruining anything for you, that there is a sequence late in the film that is so audacious, so absolutely crazypants bonkers funny and so fully and passionately realized that I was laughing, squirming and having the feeling that is so rare to have in a positive way while watching commercial American films: "I cannot believe this."
It's gory and bloody, it's funny and creepy and really sharply written. There are moments of convergence with films from The Conversation to Heathers. It's very good. But I can't tell you what happens in it.