The biggest question surrounding The Cabin in the Woods has nothing to do with the numerous surprises or unique framework, but rather why nobody picked it up to get it out of MGM bankruptcy hell sooner – the post-conversion nonsense certainly didn’t help much either (neither did all the legal tape associated with it, but I digress), and thank God they didn’t go down that road. The film plays out as an assimilation and exploration of horror tropes, seen from one perspective and lived out by another, that culminates into the most batshit insane third act since Dead Alive’s lawnmower and rooftop brawl combo. It’s almost as if geek favorite Joss Whedon and wunderkind writer Drew Goddard cracked open their heads and let all their horror memories flow out, and then scrambled them up into this really weird, engrossing meta approach. Cabin might not change your life and time will tell if it serves as a template for where the genre heads next, but one thing it’s definitely not is unoriginal.
Although the marketing is touting a “huge secret,” the truth is that the film doesn’t blindfold the audience until the eleventh hour, only to pull the rug out from under them. From the very first frame of the credit sequence, Goddard and Whedon begin laying the groundwork for dual perspectives, which sees a group of clichéd teen archetypes (Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Connolly among them) heading off to a relative’s cabin in the middle of nowhere and two white collar workers (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in an office of sorts at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The connection between the two is unclear at first, but becomes apparent when the kids arrive at the lodging for their weekend getaway.
The two point of views, which is undoubtedly the biggest reason why Cabin works, also acts as a double edged sword in the sense that one of them is significantly more interesting than the other. The group of friends, while not annoying, too smug, completely unfunny or any other negative adjective, seem like they’re there, at times, to merely serve their purpose in the structure of the movie. The inner workings of the film makes it a necessary evil for them to act cliché as the purveyors of their waking nightmare, comment on and play with those conventions, but aside for the screen presence of Hemsworth and Dollhouse alumni Fran Kranz (a stoner that isn’t completely obnoxious!) and one scene that drags on for big laughs, there’s nothing extremely captivating about their survival. The real meat and potatoes of the script – and the best lines – lie elsewhere.
Once Cabin enters the third act, the more predictable and familiar bits suddenly become a safety net of sorts in hindsight, a false sense of security, as the remainder of the film ventures off into what can only be described as a set piece that makes it extremely hard not to imagine Ballroom Blitz playing over. While frenzied and unexpected, Goddard and Whedon keep it from teetering over the edge into being pure overload; it’s certainly over the top, but not too much to take in.
The Cabin in the Woods is fun and has some strange, unpredictable moments, but it’s more clever than flat-out brilliant. Goddard and Whedon really complement each other and make the material approachable and enjoyable for those lacking extensive genre knowledge, a feat considering all the nods it contains – especially to one of the greatest authors of all time. The protagonists aren’t interesting ninety percent of the time and left me waiting for Jenkins and Whitford to continue their shtick, but it’s great to see a team willing to go that far out on a limb, be that weird, and succeed more often than not over the span of one narrative.
Lionsgate gives Cabin in the Woods a strong 1080p encode for its Blu-ray debut, capturing Peter Deming’s cinematography wonderfully. The daytime shots from the beginning of the film are a bit more vibrant – though that seems intentional – and as the film begins its climb towards the finale, the picture becomes a bit softer looking. The effect works quite well, as the effects from the finale blend in a tad better because of it. The transfer isn’t without a few minor problems though, including some slight banding and haloing, but it is damn good; fans should be very pleased. The DTS-HD 7.1 track feels like an aural assault when it needs to, especially during the third act, and captures some of the smaller atmospheric sounds once things get going about twenty minutes in.
Commentary – Writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon talk about their love for the genre, the genesis of the project, and the production. The two have been friends for years, working on Buffy together, and their passion for the film and not-quite-serious demeanors make the track worth a listen.
It’s Not What You Think: The Cabin In The Woods BonusView Mode – This is one of the worst PiP featurettes in existence. The pop-up screen is so small, you can barely see anything – especially when text is on screen – and the audio is of questionable quality. It’s also not utilized as much as it should be.
We Are Not Who We Are: Making The Cabin In The Woods (28:33) – A really good making-of documentary that covers the entirety of the production and features interviews with just about everyone you can think of. There’s a fair amount of overlap with the commentary, just because it’s so broad, but there’s a lot of b-roll footage for you to sink your teeth into.
The Secret Secret Stash (13:07) – Two short featurettes in which Fran Kranz talks about the pot paraphernalia in the movie and Whedon takes viewers on a tour of the cabin set.
An Army Of Nightmares: Makeup & Animatronic Effects (12:10) – Goddard, Whedon, and special makeup effects designer Dave Anderson, and Heather Langenkamp (of Nightmare on Elm Street fame) talk about the incredible amount of creature effects used in the film. They focus more on the practical side – though they do talk about the need for CGI in a few scenes – and show off a lot of sculpts, prosthetics, and suits. One of the great things about the featurette is that you get to see creatures that don’t get the spotlight in the film (The Blob!).
Primal Terror: Visual Effects (12:07) – Visual effects supervisor Todd Shifflett, production designer Martin Whist, and Anderson talk about the mix of practical and CGI effects in the film, highlighting the cube elevator sequence.
Wondercon Q&A (27:30) – A moderated panel with Whedon and Goddard after a screening at Wonder-Con. Almost all the information talked about here can be found on the other special features, and at least they aren’t filmed with a stationary camera. Unless you just want to hear everyone joke around some more, it’s skipable.
As a side note: no deleted scenes! What a bummer, especially since there must’ve been some stuff left on the cutting room floor from the absolutely insane third act.