Sixteen years ago, I saw Scream for the first time. I loved it. Not only was it funny and smart, it felt like a game-changer: a movie that exploded all the conventions of its genre while at the same time being a really good example of its genre. By pointing out all the clichés of horror movies, Scream rewrote the rules, leveling with us by saying, Hey, we're as sick of these lame movies as you are, and we're going to do something about it. The film seemed so revolutionary that, much to my disappointment, when I went back and watched it again a few years ago, it felt, well, lame. Its once-clever dissections of horror-flick tropes no longer were fresh and edgy. Knowing the "joke" of the movie meant that none of it was very surprising or interesting. When you got right down to it, Scream was so much "about" horror movies that, really, it wasn't about anything.
I bring this up because I haven't quite loved a horror film in the same way since—until I saw The Cabin in the Woods, that is. It's really sharp and fiendishly clever. There's a nagging worry that, like Scream, it won't hold up over the long run, but I'm not going to think about that now.
My hope is that you haven't seen any Cabin in the Woods trailers or online spoilers. This is a movie that rewards being pretty oblivious to its plot before viewing. I had heard good things about the film after its premiere at South by Southwest and had been warned that the movie had a big "secret," and so I've spent the last month avoiding anything about the film. I'm glad I did: I think much of the film's appeal comes from being surprised by what unfolds. I can't say what your experience will be like if you already know a lot about the story. I'll just tell you what I knew going in and maybe that will be enough to intrigue you.
The Cabin in the Woods opens as so many horror/slasher films do. A group of college buddies who seem to have been assembled by the one-of-each-teenager-type screenwriting rule (one jock, one slut, one good girl, one nerd, etc.) gather together for a relaxing outing in the woods. But once they get to their cabin, they start to get the weird sensation that something's not right—and we in the audience begin to wonder if something's a little off in this completely predictable horror setup.
It turns out that both the characters' and the audience's suspicions are well-warranted, and that's all I'm going to say. What makes The Cabin in the Woods such a bracing ride is that the people who made it are, for the most part, on the same wavelength as the viewer in understanding what's hopelessly tired about horror movies. The film was directed by Drew Goddard, who previously wrote Cloverfield, and was co-written by Goddard and Joss Whedon, who has made his living working in established genres and then bending them out of shape to see what happens. The Cabin in the Woods never stops being a "horror movie," but it consistently explores the limits of what horror movies are supposed to be. But unlike, for example, Scream, The Cabin in the Woods doesn't entirely rely on your awareness of horror clichés to succeed. While fanboys will eat this movie up, you don't have to be associated with that crowd to "get" the film.
It's difficult to praise what Goddard and Whedon have achieved without delving into the plot, but The Cabin in the Woods proves incredibly successful as a knowing commentary on our low expectations of horror movies. From the first second we see Chris Hemsworth's beefy Curt and Anna Hutchison's flirty airhead Jules, we know that these characters are meant to be on-the-nose types, but the film manages to make them more human than you might first expect. And while on one level, The Cabin in the Woods is blatantly (and rather obviously) satirizing society's voyeuristic tendencies—which has been done to death in everything from Rear Window to The Hunger Games—it finds a unique and frankly brilliant way of attacking this theme. And even if you already know more about the story than I've revealed, the filmmakers' subsequent twists are satisfying and, oddly, poignant. This is Whedon's specialty: For all of his Comic-Con credibility, he's adept at transforming genre material into thoughtful storytelling and resonant characters without being pretentious about it.
But then I start to worry. Because this film is being hyped by the sorts of sites that tend to overrate other buzzy genre movies (Attack the Block, The Raid: Redemption), there's inevitably going to be a backlash as people take glee in debunking this movie's pleasures and pop philosophizing. And maybe as with Scream, The Cabin in the Woods will be a victim of its cleverness: Once you know the surprises, maybe there's not enough movie there. Ask me again in five years. For now, this is a very entertaining, very intelligent dissection of why horror movie clichés exist—and why, deep down, we crave them even though we know they're sort of stupid.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.