Every few years, a horror movie comes along that promises to revitalise the genre, sometimes for the better (‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Ringu’), sometimes not (‘Scream’, ‘Hostel’). From the pen of ‘Buffy’ creator Joss Whedon and ‘Cloverfield’ scribe Drew Goddard, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ doesn’t so much set out to reinvigorate horror as pick it apart, analyse it, laugh at it and then blow it to smithereens just for kicks. It’s the funniest horror film since ‘Evil Dead 2’, the smartest since ‘New Nightmare’ and surely one of the most breathlessly entertaining, original movies of the year.
It begins with an apparent non sequitur, as working stiffs Hadley (Richard Jenkins) and Sitterson (Bradley Whitford) discuss babyproofing in an anonymous office building. We then move to a gang of nubile twentysomethings, heading off to a remote cabin for fun, frolics and fornication. But how might these stories connect? And what’s going on in the cabin, with its two-way mirrors, mysterious forcefields and basement crammed with occult artefacts?
On one level, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is simply a demonically enjoyable rollercoaster: Whedon’s knack for a snappy, offbeat one-liner remains unmatched, while first-time director Goddard’s control of his action set-pieces (of which there are many) is truly impressive. The way they toy with the clichéd iconography of horror is consistently rewarding: each time the movie seems to be following the obvious signposts, it veers wildly off into unexplored territory, resulting in scenes and images (watch out for the unicorn!) which remain lodged in the brain for days afterwards.
But this is also a film with a lot to say: about the role of horror in our lives, about the questionable morality of audience manipulation, about the banality of modern evil. It’s become a Whedon motif to follow a lapel-grabbing action sequence with a sudden, sober appraisal of the human cost of violence, but that technique has rarely been as effective as here. Of course, none of this is ever allowed to get in the way of all the fun, but it’s still remarkable to see a mainstream movie touch on so many fascinating, powerful ideas without losing sight of its prime directive: to scare the socks off its audience.
‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is clearly intended as a celebration of the world of horror cinema – but it could just as easily bury it. Its avalanche of ideas and invention have the potential to revitalise the genre but, like ‘Scream’, it could also result in a stream of lazy knock-offs. But if this truly is the last word in great horror, you couldn’t ask for a better epitaph.