Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard
Kristen Connolly: Dana
Chris Hemsworth: Curt
Anna Hutchinson: Jules
Fran Kranz: Marty
Jesse Williams: Holden
Richard Jenkins: Sitterson
Bradley Whitford: Hadley
Brian White: Truman
Amy Acker: Lin
[REDACTED]: The Director
Nothing about my garage band film criticism makes me happier than hearing that someone decided to see a movie because of one of my reviews (even Shriek of the Mutilated). In this case, though, you should only read this review if you've either already seen this movie or you know you're never going to see it. There's no way to analyze the film without ruining various elements that make it worth analyzing. So I'm in the position of telling my readers not to go any further if they think they're going to watch this one (which they won't necessarily know unless they read the review). Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?
The film itself is somewhat of a novelty--a horror film that isn't a remake, reboot or franchise entry. In a field crowded with doomed vampire romances, videotaped demonic possessions, dream-dwelling child murderers, cannibal families, hulking mute spree killers, wrathful television ghosts or killer toys this film stands out by choice. In fact, the ending makes it pretty clear that there is no rational way to make a sequel to the story whatsoever and the prequel wouldn't tell you anything you didn't already get from this one. Film is an expensive art to work in, and telling the money men that you can't get any kind of continuation to the story probably meant that it took longer than normal to get a greenlight (and, thanks to MGM/UA's bankruptcy, the film sat on a shelf for three years after it was made before Lionsgate picked up the distribution rights and sent it out into the world).
The titles, incidentally, show woodcuts of human sacrifice rituals superimposed over pools of blood. Then, abruptly, the scene transitions to a nondescript office where two middle-aged white guys are talking while the older one buys a cup of probably-not-very-good vending machine coffee. The younger one is griping about how his house is baby-proofed and none of the drawers open far enough to get anything out of them. Wherever they work, it's a huge cavernous space with discreet lighting and neutral grey bland walls; the two men are wearing white dress shirts and skinny 1960s ties. They look more or less like they stepped out of a photograph of Mission Control for one of the Apollo program moon shots. They're accosted by a woman who tells them that Stockholm is down and that it's down to the American and Japanese teams, whatever that means; the older man says Japan's had a perfect record and the Americans try harder because they're perenially in second place. Some more sniping and bantering reveals that whatever it is that the American team is doing, they've managed to get it right every year since 1998 and that the "chem department" was at fault for whatever went wrong that year. The woman--who is rattled at the possibility of things not working out this year--works in that group, and the two men drive off in a motorized cart after snarking at her a little bit more. The two men's conversation is interrupted by the movie title in gigantic red blocky letters and a scream, the official first jump scare in the film.
Next up: the introduction of the other main cast of the film--five college students that plan to spend a long weekend at the titular cabin in the woods. One of the gang of five's cousins recently came into possession of the cabin and they get to hang out as a group for a weekend doing whatever handsome and pretty college students do when there's no adult supervision. Probably binge-watching Game of Thrones and arguing about Kirk vs. Picard. Two jocks (Curt and Holden), a stoner (Marty), a blonde woman dating Jock Number one (Jules) and redheaded woman who was having an affair with her sociology professor, and got dumped via email (Dana). As much as one might expect these characters to be one-dimensional meat puppets, especially in a horror movie, that isn't quite the case. For one thing, the presumably meatheaded alpha jock describes one post-Soviet history text to be more interesting than another (which means he's familiar with both), and only acts like a dickhead to his girlfriend as part of a joke mocking the morals of public service announcements. And the stoner uses social engineering to get away with taking massive hits off a three-foot-tall stainless steel bong while driving, reasoning--correctly--that police who see that happening won't believe it and he'll never face the consequences. He also locks his driver's side door when exiting the car but keeps the window rolled down; I'm not sure if he's supposed to be eccentric or baked. We learn the least about Dana and Jock Number Two in this introductory scene, but the really important thing is that there was someone on the roof of Dana and Jules' apartment building watching them leave in a pretty boss RV and reporting back to someone that "the nest is empty", also saying that whatever's happening is right on schedule.
On the road, we get the required-by-technological-advances dialogue where the cabin is not on GPS and nobody's cell phones work (back in 1985 or so this would not have been an issue at all, but by grafting the spam-in-a-cabin storyline on a movie set in 2009 there are some things that have to be stated in order for later events to make sense to a post-millennial audience). Marty goes on a mild rant about the surveillance state and how he hates being monitored and cataloged by society--although he, like the other four students, failed to notice he was being monitored as he left for the weekend.
Whatever the hell those two guys in the Mission Control cosplay shirts are doing, it's in a control center behind a gigantic steel door. An armed guard checks their IDs on a little barcode scanner, and the younger of the pair, Hadley, lets their guard (and the audience) know that he doesn't have to be called "sir" because they aren't in the military. Whatever they're doing, it involves tracking the group of students via satellite on one of three gigantic viewscreens, and there are half a dozen control consoles crammed with switches, readouts, screens, microphones, and the like. It looks like nothing so much as the control booth of a television station crossed with the missile command center in WarGames. Although they're both still jovial to each other and the guard in the room, both Hadley and Sitterson are taking their task absolutely seriously.
On the way to this cabin, there's the obligatory "stop at the creepy old gas station for fuel and directions" scene. The set designers spent their money on preserved animals or animal parts and rusty chains, as you do when you're decorating a gas station to show that you've seen The Hills Have Eyes (or its remake or any of its ripoffs). The greasy redneck that runs the station appears out of nowhere in the manner of such creatures and acts as off-putting as possible while selling fuel and giving directions to the cabin. In this movie, though, the whiny-voiced stoner sasses the hell out of the redneck, specifically because the guy was rude to his friends. Not what one usually sees in this story.
Something else usually not seen in this kind of story--when the RV full of students drives through a tunnel next to a sheer canyon, an eagle wipes out on some kind of force field that none of the protagonists happen to see, and fries like a bug on a zapper. The Gang of Five arrives at the cabin without further incident. Adding to the sense of familiarity (or the sense of "this movie is exactly like a dozen other movies I have already seen"), the one-story wood cabin with a carpet of autumn leaves looks like Bruce Campbell and his friends should be vacating it and seeing if they can get their damage deposit back. Although, to be fair, it isn't immediately off-putting inside. Actually, it's rather charming in a rustic, down-home kind of way (especially compared to the creepiness of the gas station). At first, anyway. Secondary athletic person Holden picks a room, and there's a painting of a rural family messily slaughtering a sheep taking up half a wall. Worse than that, when he takes it down because that is not at thing anyone wants to look at before going to bed he finds a one-way mirror behind it, looking into Dana's room. When Dana decides to change clothes he finds himself an accidental voyeur, but does the right thing and warns her before he (or the audience) sees anything. Holden's even a nice enough guy to offer to switch rooms so that Dana knows he won't be looking at her while she's sleeping. Dana takes him up on it, but now she's stuck with the creepy painting. And in a bit of equal-opportunity lechery, Holden changes his shirt immediately when he's in his new bedroom (and has quite the impressive torso--Dana isn't above a quick peek when she's given the same opportunity to watch an attractive person take off some clothes).
Hey, I wonder what those guys in the control room are doing right about now. Actually, they're watching Dana put a blanket over the creepy painting on one of their monitor screens. It turns out that every room in the cabin has at least one camera installed--there's also some outside looking at the building itself. Sitterson and Hadley take command, telling other departments that haven't shown up onscreen yet that there's been a room switch, and Lin from the chem group drops by to say that Jules' hair dye has been doped with something that is meant to make her dumber and hornier than she would normally be. A voice on the intercom says the "Harbinger" is on line two; neither one of the mission control guys wants to talk to him. Hadley loses the telepathic game of rock-paper-scissors and takes the call, asking Mordecai what the weather is like "up top"--looks like the command center is underground. The Harbinger (you can hear the capital letter when the intercom guy says it) says that the lambs are blind and deaf to the horrors to come and have entered the killing floor as the god's fools. Not "God's fools", mind you. Apparently they're at the cabin for some deific purpose but not necessarily one with JHVH's stamp of approval on it. In the middle of a flat-voiced rant about bathing in the blood of sinners, Mordecai breaks off and asks if he's on the speakerphone. Hadley does nothing and tells him it's fixed, and the second rant, one about how the invocation was nearly ruined by Marty's fuck-you attitude, gets cut off when Sitterson and Hadley can't keep from laughing at this prank.
Back at the cabin, everyone but Marty is goofing around in the unseasonably cold lake and a betting pool is briskly underway in the bunker. Representatives from every department are handing over piles of money and slips of paper; Sitterson looks at one person's bet and says he's not even sure they have one of them. The bettor says "Zoology" told them they do, whatever that means. While we're compiling information that doesn't make any sense, Truman says that the game is rigged and Hadley tells him that the kids at the cabin are going to make a choice of their own free will after they get in the cellar. For that matter, Mordecai and his Texas Chainsaw Reenactment Society gas station are part of the same system--Sitterson explains that he's there to warn the cabin residents away, and for them to choose to ignore him. And Hadley chimes in to say that this system works the way it is, ominously adding that if the five participants don't transgress, they can't be punished. Things are not looking too good for everyone "upstairs" in the cabin, are they?
The party commences in both locations simultaneously--beer, weed and music in the cabin and the two Mission Control dorks doing this in the bunker:
Richard Jenkins is my homeboy.
The kids are playing Truth or Dare and Jules is dared to make out with a mounted wolf head that Marty is high enough to refer to as a moose. She really goes for it, too--apparently the bimboizing chemicals in her hair dye are working overtime. Partway through Dana's turn the cellar door pops inexplicably open; it's her dare to go down into it. She's got a flashlight, at least, which is more than I would have expected for someone exploring a dark scary underground room in this kind of story. The cellar is dusty and festooned with cobwebs, and it's absolutely crammed with stuff that the House on the Rock would have left off display for being too creepy and weird. Antiques, tarnished mirrors, doll-faced masks, a conch shell, a vintage bridal dress, a fortune telling machine and ever so much more. This scene was made for freeze-framing and digital clarity. All of the junk in the basement exerts a kind of fascinating compulsion on the students, except for the one whose bloodstream is ten percent bongwater. Everyone starts goofing with an artifact or two, and everyone is drawn towards something or other, with Holden winding up a music box and Curt playing with a some kind of round puzzle-box thing that he comes within a second or two of opening. But Dana reads from a diary from 1903, one that was written by a little girl whose family lived in that very cabin and who makes reference to her family torturing and murdering travelers in "the black room". The last entry in Patience Buckner's diary claims that her arm has been cut off and eaten in a rite meant to make her family immortal (ever the dutiful and polite child, she apologizes for the bad handwriting on the last page, since her dominant hand has been consumed as a sacrament in a ritual found in "one of the oldest books"). Again, the massively stoned Marty is the only one who thinks that reading the Latin at the end of the diary of someone who practiced a Lovecraftian torture ritual to cheat death is ill-advised.
But we're only at the end of the first act, so of course Dana reads it. Immediately after the last syllable is spoken a group of dead people in the finest work clothing of 1903 haul themselves out of the ground, clutching rusty farm tools. This isn't going to go well for anyone except Maintenance, who bet on "Zombies, Redneck Torture Family" in the bunker pool (along with Ronald the intern, who will be splitting the pot with them). By the way, that thing I said about the basement being made for freeze-framing? The whiteboard with the betting pool in the bunker is even better. With a selection made and the funds distributed to the winners, it's time for everyone to get to work. Hadley finds himself disappointed far beyond just losing some money--he came this close to seeing a merman in action, which he's wanted for years, and Curt had a conch shell in his hands before selecting the puzzle thing that he settled on. As they settle down to start this year's...whatever it is...Sitterson and Hadley talk about the Japanese team's hard work and dedication and walk by a monitor showing that Rangoon and Berlin's rituals have failed, and that there's a classroom of terrified Japanese schoolgirls fleeing from a hovering ghost that looks like it died angry and rested underwater for a while (the payoff to this sequence is one of the straight-up funniest parts of the film).
Oblivious to the danger outside, the partiers watch Jules do a less nude version of Trash's dance from Return of the Living Dead. She and Curt wander off into the woods to have sex (and extra points to the film for having everyone who stays at the cabin weirded out by the couple's atypically slutty and assholish behavior, respectively). Holden takes a look at the diary, and translates the Latin off the top of his head. It's ramblings about pain living on after the flesh and other light nighttime reading. He and Dana have a nice low-key conversation while the other couple commences foreplay out in the woods (intercut with a shot of the bunker staff watching them, hoping for nudity, that simultaneously indicts the viewer for their prurient interest while cracking them up). Those control consoles are set up to do a whole hell of a lot, incidentally--Hadley and Sitterson turn up the temperature (outside!) so that Jules isn't too cold to take her top off as well as commanding hidden vents to spray pheromones out into the area to supercharge the pair's libidos. The clothes come off in short order and everything's proceeding nicely when a pair of the Buckners attack Jules at her most vulnerable moment. In the commentary, Joss Whedon points out that it was important to the film that once Jules has been hurt, her breasts aren't exposed--the audience is supposed to be appalled at what's happening to her, not titillated.
Curt manages to fend off the smaller Buckner, but the larger one has a bear trap on a chain. Jules isn't able to get away and three of the Buckners use a two-man saw to decapitate the designated slut. And then, down in the control center, the two managers say a brief prayer and kiss a medallion with an occult symbol on it, consecrating Jules' blood and activating some kind of complicated mechanism under the cabin that is also part of the ritual meant to keep something asleep for another year.
Back at the cabin, Holden and Dana are making progress on the couch while Marty goes out for a walk in the dark woods at night, as you do. He's saved from a typical got-snuck-up-on-while-taking-a-piss death when Curt slams into him, fleeing the Buckners. Dana opens the door to look for her friend and the most physically imposing of the Buckner family is on the front porch, carrying Jules' severed head. The remaining four wind up inside the cabin while a redneck torture zombie pounds on the bolted front door. Curt powers through the trauma (and the drugged beer that's supposed to keep him testosterone-poisoned), telling everyone that they have to stick together and fortify the cabin, followed by a jump cut to Hadley cursing his atypical instinct for self-preservation and Sitterson pumping something out of the air conditioning vents in the cabin to make Curt stupider. One more zombie attack later, everyone splits up into their rooms, which are shut and locked via remote control. At this point Marty finds a camera bug in his room's lamp and starts to put a few vague suspicions together (and comes to the rational but wrong conclusion that he's on a reality show). Unfortunately he puts two and two incorrectly together with his back to a big breakable window and Judah Buckner yanks him outside. As it turns out, the zombie is more durable than the stoner, who brought a three-foot-long steel bong to a garden shear fight. And the second Rube Goldberg mousetrap occult machine is put into action, with whatever it is "downstairs" excited enough to cause an earth tremor at the latest offering.
Dana's the next one attacked and even though nobody can get out of their rooms, Holden is smart enough to smash the one-way mirror between their rooms to haul her to safety. The fortuitous discovery of another trap door in Holden's bedroom's floor means that he and Dana escape at least for the moment, though the room turns out to be full of rusty chains and bladed implements. Remember that "black room" that Patience Buckner wrote about in her diary? Looks like they've found it. And whichever Buckner it is that had the bear trap on a chain almost hauls Holden out to his death, but Dana is persistent and angry enough to turn the zombie from an ambulatory corpse to the regular kind. Thanks to more manipulation from Underground Control, she drops the knife immediately afterward. The remaining trio gets into the RV and peels rubber to get the hell away from the murder shack.
Back in the bunker, the Kyoto event fails (as did Stockholm, Madrid and Buenos Aires, the latter of which apparently had some kind of bull-horned giant gorilla shot to death on an expressway). Some panicked interjections from Lin in the chemistry division help spell out just what's going on--if the remaining three students are still alive at the end of this event, "the ancient ones" will rise up; it's pretty safe to bet that the initials for that kind of event are T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I., which at least means that the last days have a cool song for everyone to enjoy before humanity's lights go out. Sitterson makes a panic run to the demolitions control room and rewires their system on the fly in order to set off the demolition charges; some quick driving in reverse from Curt means that "rocks fall, everyone dies" isn't the last sentence of the plot synopsis.
But there's a thousand-foot canyon about fifteen or twenty yards across between the remaining trio and safety. Curt plans to jump a dirt bike over the canyon, go for help, and return with the end of The Blues Brothers to wipe out the Buckners while Holden and Dana stay secure in the RV. And it looks like it would have actually worked, except that nobody in the group knew about that forcefield that an eagle wiped out on previously. Exit Curt, who tumbles down hundreds of feet while Dana and Holden realize that the plainly impossible is happening and that someone or something is directing the events they've been living through (or not, in the case of their three friends). Also, it looks like the Buckners don't need to be directly involved with a killing for the bunker crew to be able to make another blood offering to the sleeping elder gods; this time, we get a better look at the blood filling in an etched-stone pattern as the final step of the ritual. It's a pictogram of a figure holding a javelin or spear (and when Marty got dragged away the pictogram looked like it was holding a chalice). One assumes there's something else to mark the first one that the audience didn't get a look at, and that there are two more shallow stone trenches waiting to be filled with blood.
We get a surprise kill as Holden drives the RV back to the cabin (looking for another way out of their situation), after getting a scythe through the throat he drives off a cliff and into the lake we saw everyone swimming in before. Dana is quick and clear-headed enough to get out of the roof vent and swim for the surface; in the bunker, Sitterson, Hadley and Lin pop open a beer apiece and explain to their guard that the Virgin's death isn't necessary for the American placatory ritual to work as long as she suffers, and that she's got to outlive the other four sacrifices for things to work. She rests on top of the dock, panicking and drained, until it turns out that the bear-trap Buckner was down but not out and the celebration in the bunker control room (complete with Dana being brutalized on the monitors in the background) is interrupted by a phone call from the Director. It's a call on a red phone with no dial, which cannot be a good sign. An even worse sign: The ritual didn't work. Great news for Dana and Marty (who apparently got the better of his assailant), terrible news for the rest of the world. Not that either of the survivors knows this right now, of course...
Marty leads Dana back to the cabin and to a grave that one of the Buckners crawled out of--it's a concrete walled chamber with a control panel and an elevator under the floor, which is not exactly what anybody would have expected. Marty's pretty sure he's figured out how to get the elevator to go down (the only option), so the pair takes a trip on the glass-walled transit and the world of the movie opens right up. Remember all the artifacts in the cabin's basement? There were hundreds of them, far more than there were categories on the white board in the control center for the betting pool. Well, the elevator appears to be the delivery system for each and every one of them. As the elevator goes down (and occasionally sideways), Dana and Marty get a look at some of the other things that could have been sent after them. There's your standard werewolf and ghost, yeah, but also some things a bit more outre than that--the guy in the black leather with the blades stuck in his head and the puzzle sphere in his hand? Yeah, even people who aren't horror fans probably got that one just because the character design it's referencing was so iconic in the age of VHS. (Incidentally, the puzzle sphere itself has large facets at the top and bottom and a double row of squares in a band on the middle). And then we're treated to a great shot as the camera pulls back, showing dozens of elevator cubes, if not hundreds of them. Spot-the-reference fans will see a Big Damn Spider, creepy twins, a giant killer snake, a pack of slow shuffler type zombies, a homicidal clown (although it appears to be of terrestrial origin), some kind of killbot, and much more than any human eye can take in during the shot.
Ironically enough, the elevator is the safest spot for Dana and Marty to be right now. The walls might be transparent but they're shatterproof (none of the monsters can get at them for the time being) and the door out of the facility itself isn't bugged, wired, miked or monitored the way the cabin and its surroundings is. Unfortunately, their elevator is under the bunker staff's control and it's monitored, so it gets brought down to the bunker itself. The survivors manage to overpower a security guard with the inadvertant help of a severed but still animated zombie forearm and get out into a corridor where a really familiar voice on the intercom tries to tell the pair to stay calm and let themselves be used as an offering to the Ancient Ones; they duck into a control booth and dump the entire contents of the monster dungeon into the elevators, and directly into the faces of the SWAT team that was shooting at them. Turns out that bringing a gun to a BIGASS MONSTER RUMBLE is a great way to be the first wave of many, many casualties. In one of the film's better sick jokes, Marty and Dana are safe in the control booth because there's so much blood covering the window; none of the monsters can see them and there's hundreds of victims to distract them in the lobby or down the hall (coincidentally enough, leading away from the booth). Soon enough every monitor screen in the control room is showing someone dying a horrible death at the hands (claws, blades, flames, horns, teeth, energy aura) of another hideous creature. It's like watching a mixtape compiled from forty years of the horror genre in one fell swoop.
A giant bat smashes through the booth window right around the same time something is pounding dents in the bank vault door open in the control room with its bare hands. Total carnage ensues, with the two sacrifices stumbling into a relatively safe spot through blind luck while blood runs in the hallways. The control room guard takes a group of scarecrow golems out (along with himself) with a grenade while Sitterson tries to open an access panel in the floor. Hadley gets his requisite Ironic Death as he gets to see a merman in action from about half an inch away, and Lin gets yanked into the ceiling by a tentacle just before Sitterson gets the escape hatch open. Sitterson himself qualifies for an Ironic Death of his own when he runs into Dana trowel-first in the underground stone chamber where the Ancient Ones' sacrifices are recorded. The blood-limned pictograms on the walls identify the archetypes that each of the five was supposed to represent: The Scholar, the Athlete, the Fool, the Whore and the Virgin. And at the bottom of the chamber, there's something stirring in its sleep. When the Director of the organization shows up to explain the exact rules of the ritual, I find myself wondering if she's a survivor of a previous year. There's no zealot like a convert, after all.
Events (and, among other things, a werewolf) intrude before Marty can die on schedule, and he and Dana, both wounded, wait out the last five or six minutes until the ritual fails and the Ancient Ones rise to wipe out every living human being on Earth. But you can see why they'd decide that the system that murdered their friends isn't one they feel like saving this point. There's only so much brutality anyone could be expected to take. Oddly enough, it's their level-headedness, intelligence and decisive action at the end of the road that dooms humanity--qualities that ordinarily would be praiseworthy but are now the herald to the End of Time. So it goes.
Watching The Cabin in the Woods a second time, I noticed two things that eluded me before. The first is that the audience--assuming they're of sufficient age to remember the slasher boom of the early Eighties and other developments in the horror movie genre from then till now--is being programmed to think of the story as an apocalyptic one from the first time it sets eyes on the control room characters. All those monitor screens are state of the art, but the control consoles themselves are straight out of 1983. Skinny tie wearing white dudes with a military guard underground with Reagan-era hardware? I can't think of anything else except nuclear annihilation. If the consoles looked ten or fifteen years older, they'd fit right alongside anything in the command center in Colossus: The Forbin Project (another movie suffused with dread over the annihilation of the human race from the first frame to the last).
The signifiers on screen are partly there in order to sell the MTV-showing-actual-videos-era "Spam in a cabin" plotline, sure, but I would argue the images are also there in order to lead horror fans--or anyone old enough who's watching the movie--to make the association with a planet scoured clean of life by elemental forces, consciously or not. There's almost no racial or ethnic diversity in the bunker cast (Truman the guard is pretty much the only black face above or below ground), which is another comment on the genre that the film simultaneously replicates and comments on. All the times I wound up saying "this kind of story" in the review? You're supposed to be thinking of this kind of story through the entire film. All the tropes that are used are meant to serve double dut--they mean something about the horror genre itself while simultaneously progressing the story of this film.
The second thing I noticed? The bunker staff, more or less, fits into the five roles of the sacrifice victims. The physically capable Truman is the Athlete and Hadley's whining about never getting to see a merman puts him as the comic relief (or Fool). Sitterson is the Scholar and Lin would be the Whore, I guess, more for the chemical division's use of drugs to cause the sacrifices to be horny and stupid than for anything she does on her own (and because slasher movies tend to only have two parts for the female characters to play). And if the Director (played by one of only two actresses that would have any kind of cultural resonance as a Final Girl) was really a survivor of a previous year's program as I half suspect, she'd be the honorary Virgin (and note how much of her skin is covered when she does show up--gloves and stockings and a severe grey dress that all look rather penitential). As the Director herself says when Dana protests being assigned the role of the Virgin, the organization works with what they have. Unfortunately for the human race, what they had wasn't quite up to the task.