*The Cabin in the Woods (R)
I know countless variations on the phrase "ultimate horror film" have been thrown around before. But I can't see how any movie is more worthy of that claim than The Cabin in the Woods.
It's not about a level of violence or clever kills. It's about this: I don't know how anyone can possibly make a horror movie again. Cabin renders all past and future examples of the genre superfluous. How can anyone ever top this?
I'm not sure there's ever been a more spoilerable movie than The Cabin in the Woods, either, and I'm not sure there's ever been a movie that's such a joy to keep the secret of. And yet this isn't an instance where the mere knowledge of a twist is spoiler enough to ruin a film. Cabin is so much more radically original than that.
Even before we meet the Scooby gang of eager, horny, happy college students being set up for the slaughter, we meet the people who are setting them up for the slaughter. There's a ... facility. The place is gleaming and clean and rather terrifyingly ordinary. It's a workplace for regular guys like Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, who wear short-sleeved dress shirts and arrange things so the Scooby gang of eager, horny, happy college students can die in the cabin in the woods to which they are heading for a weekend vacay.
All horror movies are about conventions and stereotypes: Who dies first, and how. What makes the victims targets. What the motives of the killer(s) are. And so on. That gets blown out of the water — at least as a subtext of the narrative — right away. There's something else going, and it's not like anything we've learned about horror movies from watching horror movies.
Except, as things begin to make themselves known, it sorta is, too.
The Scooby gang, as is pretty much de rigueur for horror flicks, is played by a batch of appealing mostly unknowns. (Even star Chris Hemsworth was still unknown back in early 2009, when Cabin was shot.) There is among them the standard jock, blonde, virgin, brainiac, stoner. Yet they seem to defy the stereotypes, too: The blonde isn't dumb, the brainiac isn't nerdy. The clichés are here, and Cabin is having fun with them, without ever forgetting that they're inhabited by real people.
I can't say more, except the very general. The Cabin in the Woods is everything you might expect from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon and Lost's Drew Goddard — they co-wrote the script; Goddard directed — without it being anything like an imitation or a continuation of what they've done before. Cabin works on many levels, including levels you may not have even realized were available to be explored.
It is deeply horrifying and uncomfortably funny. It returns to the ancient, atavistic terrors that have been fueling scary stories since forever, and updates them in a way that feeds on uniquely modern ideas about such seemingly diverse notions as religion and bureaucracy. It's a metaphor for storytelling that becomes its own sort of archetype. It's practically a new archetype, if such a thing is possible.
You know how they say there are only seven basic stories? I think Whedon and Goddard may have found an eighth.