Knowing ‘meta’ horror suffers despite its cliches: The Cabin in the Woods review

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The Cabin in the Woods, movie
The Cabin in the Woods: teenagers are tormented in Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's horror

Despite the sinking feeling in my gut, which I get whenever Joss Whedon’s name is mentioned – Buffy the Vampire Slayer being the only exception to this rule – I was quietly optimistic about, The Cabin in the Woods. But when it comes to Whedon, I should have known better. The Cabin in the Woods is rubbish. Drivel. Clap-trap. And even worse, it’s pseudo-intellectual nonsense.

The narrative is knowingly clichéd, and director Drew Goddard and screen-writing collaborator, Joss Whedon, are winking at the audience from the film’s get-go. Whoopee! It’s a film with lots of self-referential humour, it’s very keen for you to understand, that it is not your average clichéd horror affair and that it is very, very, clever – it’s meta, baby!

The film starts-off and almost instantly establishes our band of stereotypical teenagers, but remember that’s done with a wink and a nod – that Whedon, he’s so meta right now! There’s Kurt played by Thor’s, Chris Helmsworth, he’s the jock, then there’s the sensitive scholar, Holden (Jesse Williams) and the stoner, Shaggy – sorry I meant Marty (Franz Kranz). Their female counter-parts include, the high-school tramp, Curt’s girlfriend, Jules (Anna Hutchinson) and the prissy virgin – wink wink – and heroine, Dana (Kristen Connolly).

During the film’s first five minutes, we’re given all the character development that we’re going to get. And no sooner are the teens’ ‘characters’ established, that they set-off on their debauched adventure to Deathsville. An adventure which includes them being warned-off by a local hill-billy, again with a MASSIVE wink-and-a-nod.

But then something unexpected happens. The proverbial curtain is raised and it’s revealed that the teenage kids are being observed by two ‘suits’ (played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in a rather ominous looking facility – low-and-behold these ‘suits’ are going to control the ‘events’, which unfold at the cabin in the woods. The cabin itself adheres to all the clichés expected, from mounted animal heads, to rickety-creaking old doors and of course a cellar full of secrets. Secrets I won’t reveal, because that really would be spoilerific and I don’t want to ruin the ‘experience’, for those who do want to see the film, for themselves.

Perhaps the film’s most enjoyable *critic chuckles to himself* meta moment, is when Jules gets exposed to some pheromone mist, by the two ‘suits’ at the facility. This causes her to get all ‘horned-up’, at the most inopportune of times. I don’t want to spoil anything but boobies might be revealed, and of course, nudity never-EVER, precedes death in a horror film –wink wink.

I’m actually quite a fan of films which allude to their genre conventions, with-a-wink-and-a-nudge; films that are meta. Wes Craven is the most obvious horror-aficionado, to have successfully experimented with the sub-genre, whether in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Scream or even Red Eye.

Now, Scream bares an obvious comparison to this Whedon script, because of its teenage characters, but any of the Scream films are far more entertaining and intelligent – ok maybe not parts III or IV – than The Cabin in the Woods. And the real crushing blow, which this comparison reveals, is that despite Craven always keeping his meta at the forefront (in his films) it was always, interwoven masterfully into his narrative and never did it take precedence over his characters or their character development.

In recent years, particularly in the rather distastefully named ‘Gorno’ sub-genre, there has been an emphasis upon torture and gore alone. To the extent that you want the characters to be killed – although, to be fair, this has always been a complicit trait of the horror film, but it was never so explicit, until the Hostel and Saw films arrived.

The truly great horror films have you rooting for your protagonist to survive. But in recent years the emphasis has been placed upon death and in particular, painful mutilation.

The best horror film I’ve seen in recent years is a horror pastiche (with its own stake in meta), The House of The Devil, which takes places in the 1980s – the era which gave us the videonasties and The Evil Dead. Ti West’s film worked so well – despite its desire to be ‘cool’ – because it never sacrificed the importance of crafting a central character with which the audience could A) identify with and B) root-for.

These days it appears that cheap thrills and a fixation upon blood lust and torture are valued above all else. While I’m not suggesting that Whedon/Goddard’s film is part of the Gorno sub-genre, it is far more interested in being ‘cool’, than telling a great story with characters you actually care about, which is surprising considering the emphasis placed upon character and storytelling in Buffy.

The Cabin in the Woods is a cheap, pseudo-hipster film – it craves to be taken seriously and studied for its ‘insightful’ genre deconstruction. But it’s too wrapped up with its vanity, its pursuit of being viewed as ‘clever’ to actually be any good.

While the concept may have had some merit in the hands of a true horror maestro, in the hands of Whedon and Goddard, it’s nothing more than mere self-congratulatory, ‘geek’ masturbation-fodder. If Whedon and Goddard had spent less time fixating upon exposing the genres clichés, and concentrated equally upon their characters, they might have actually made a half-way decent film. Instead, as the film approaches its final act, the only thing that marginally sustained my interest were the creatures contained at the ‘facility’ – a cheap trick at best.

And after all this winking, nudging and nodding, I’m exhausted. So I’m off to my cabin by the lake, for a well-deserved and secluded rest… damn, this crap’s infectious!


  1. Axel says

    Couldn’t agree more with this review. Saw this film at the weekend after reading positive reviews, and can’t believe how bad it was. £8.85 well and truly wasted. There were a couple in there laughing at the parts where they thought they should laugh, very loudly so the rest of us were aware they ‘got’ it. Jesus wept.