THE CABIN IN THE WOODS: Am I On Speakerphone?

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – Directed by Drew Goddard – Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Amy Acker, Brian White, and Sigourney Weaver.

Let’s be clear before you pass this italicized point: if you’ve come here because you’re looking for one of those reviews that don’t ruin the story, you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s a point I like to make from time to time that I write “reactions” more than “reviews,” which is never made more clear then when I review a movie like THE CABIN IN THE WOODS here in the infant stages of its public existence. Because, and I want to be perfectly clear here, I’m going to talk about the movie. All of it. Which means SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. Spoilers. Big ones. Like, the ending and stuff. You have been warned.

Oh, and if you just want to know if you should see it, then yes, by all means, go see it. Quickly. Before you accidentally hit the page down button and find out the entire movie is actually an extended opening scene for Avengers.

Follow along on Twitter.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is the movie that Scream 4 should have been. Not literally, of course, but instead of simply falling back on decade-old tricks, I wish Scream 4 had the inventiveness, fun, and frights of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, a tremendously good time of a horror movie that’s much less about being some kind of meta-commentary on horror movies as it is a deepening of the horror movie mythos.

It’s really not even that, and I appreciate that CABIN isn’t trying to be a wholly deconstructionist take down of horror movies. CABIN is better than that by being less than that; never forgetting that it’s a movie here to deliver the thrills and chills, CABIN takes a standard horror set-up – the teenage, “cabin in the woods” story – and pulls back the curtain to reveal two additional layers of meaning in order to give us more of the stuff we came to see: blood, guts, frights, and cleverness.

(And Amy Acker. It’s always good to see more Amy Acker.)

CABIN posits that the teenage horror story is actually a deadly game being run by a corporate facility for reasons unknown. There are similar operations being run by facilities all over the world and head technicians Richard and Steve (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) are ready for the big day. It’s a very clever move to show us the technicians right up front to let us in on the twist; CABIN could have given us the entire film from the college kids’ POV, but by showing us the Wizard at the same time we’re watching our characters move through Oz, CABIN adds a layer of fun to the proceedings.

It’s also a joy to watch two solid actors like Jenkins and Whitford blitz through this dialogue with the right sense of pace and detachment. Thrills and chills aside, it’s worth watching CABIN just for the way the characters talk to one another. Co-written by director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon, Jenkins and Whitford have a wonderful sense of “9 to 5″ about them, that tells us that this job, no matter what it is, is just that – a job. When Wendy (Acker) joins them and starts in with her heightened nerves and panicky concerns, Richard and Steve just brush her aside and remind her the last time their facility had a failure it was because of the chemistry department.

“And what department are you in?” they ask rhetorically.

Cut to the apartment of college student Dana (Kristen Connolly), a cutesy redhead packing for a weekend trip to the countryside. We soon meet the rest of the participants: Jules (Anna Hutchison), the hot blonde; Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the super jock; Holden (Jesse Williams), the brains; and Marty (Fran Kranz), the pot-smoking idiot. CABIN displays its cleverness in a lot of subtle ways, like how the super jock isn’t a doucebag or an idiot, or the virgin isn’t really a virgin, or the nerd isn’t a dork or geek. What we’ve got is a group of college kids that feel like actual kids, and not types.

Even though the fact that they’re types is sort of the point.

They pile into an RV and head off for a cabin belonging to Curt’s cousin. They stop for gas in the middle of nowhere and run into Mordecai (Tim de Zarn), one of these crusty old locals offering scary foreshadowing and backhanded advice like, “You’ve got enough gas to get there. Getting back’s another story.” After sending the kids on their way, Mordecai calls in to headquarters to talk to Richard and Steve. Unbeknownst to Mordecai, Steve puts him on speakerphone so Richard and Wendy can listen in. Mordecai is even crustier and offers even more spooky foreshadowing with the technicians, but the three of them find him and his warnings completely hilarious, causing Mordecai to stop mid-warning and ask, “Am I on speakerphone?”

“No.”

“I can hear the echo!”

It’s funny stuff and CABIN continually uses the technicians to set or break the overall mood of the film. When the kids arrive, get settled, and start playing Truth or Dare, we cut back to the technicians to find them gambling on the outcome of the scenario. Both parties are feeling good but only the technicians know what’s coming. When a new security guard wonders how they can gamble when the outcome is rigged, Richard corrects him, “We just get them into the cellar. They take it from there.”

Ah, the cellar. Back at the cabin, Marty dares Jules to make out with the mounted head of a wolf. Jules works that wolf’s head with enough abandon it creeps a few of her friends out, but her display is to help illustrate how the technicians rig the game by pumping chemicals into the cabin to enhance emotions. Dana is up next and everyone knows she’s going to take Truth because she’s too inhibited to see any Dare through. At that moment, the technicians decide to pop open the door to the cellar, and Curt dares her to go down there.

So she does, and she’s soon joined by the whole group. Only Marty thinks this is a bad idea, but soon all of them become engrossed in various creeptastic objects. The music and the camera work pulls us in, too, and we can see that we’re on the verge of something happening, but what? Holden has a weird, round puzzle in his hands that he’s starting to rotate, Jules is about to put something around her neck, Curt has a conch shell, and Marty is looking at some 8 MM film. Before any of them can do their thing, however, Dana reads from a diary.

The assembled technicians and scientists go crazy, as the workers who bet on “Redneck Zombie Family” win the pool.

Back at the cabin, we see the Redneck Zombie Family come crawling out of the ground. Jules and Curt decide to go for a walk in the woods to fool around, and Richard and Steve manipulate the scene to allow for a shaft of moon light to illuminate a bed of moss for them to get busy on. Richard and Steve desperately hope to see Jules’ breasts as her and Curt go at it, and our beautiful blonde obliges.

Then the killing starts. Jules is taken out first by the Redneck Zombies and a bleeding Curt makes his way back to the cabin where he decides they all need to stick together. Not liking this turn, the technicians pump some gas into the cabin that gets Curt suggesting they all split up, which everyone but Marty agrees with. (Marty’s weed inhibits the effect of the pumped-in chemicals.) Splitting up, the technicians lock them in their rooms so the zombies can get at them one at a time. In his room, Marty knocks over a lamp and realizes the room is bugged, his paranoid fears about “puppeteers” proving true. Before he can tell the others, however, Marty is dragged outside and killed by the zombies.

The three survivors hop in the RV to escape, and there’s a freak out back at the lab because engineering hasn’t blown the tunnel that they need to go through to get out. Engineering says they never got the message, but Richard recovers in time, blowing the tunnel just before the kids are free of the domed killing area. (And here, I’m a bit confused because several times in CABIN there’s inference made to someone sabotaging the proceedings, yet we never have the culprit revealed. Is it really supposed to be Marty? In between killing the Redneck Zombie and this moment in the film, he purposely sabotages the communication between the technicians and engineering? Is the damage he causes to the tunnel communique just luck? It seems a bit specific and a bit of a tight fit timeline-wise. Or, it seems like too much random luck.) Curt tries to jump a gorge but he runs into that invisible dome and falls to his death. Holden and Dana flee in the RV, but a zombie kills Holden, sending the RV crashing into the lake.

Dana escapes, but back at the lab everyone is going nuts in a wild celebration, popping the alcohol and cranking the REO Speedwagon. The techs explain that it doesn’t matter if Dana escapes at this point because the virgin death is optional; all that’s required is that she suffers. We can see Dana getting choked on the screens behind the techs, but no one is even watching. No one is paying attention to anything until an ominous red phone rings. Steve answers it and is surprised to hear that someone survived.

Cut back to the lake and just before she dies Dana is saved by Marty. He leads her back to the zombie grave and they climb into an underground area. Dana can see a brightly lit room beneath them and Steve explains it’s an elevator of some kind. In they go to see who’s behind everything. Instead of the elevator moving straight down, it’s actually a prison cube and soon the two survivors are seeing all manner of monsters trapped in these cages. They realize that these monsters correspond with the artifacts in the cellar. After the monster zoo, they’re dumped into the main facility, where they have to fight security guards who are trying to kill them. They hide in a security room and Dana releases all the monsters. Appearing with the now ominous ding of an elevator arriving at your floor, monsters come pouring out of their cages in waves.

Blood, chaos, and death ensues.

Dana and Marty eventually make their way to the a circular crypt where the Director (Sigourney Weaver) explains what’s going on – each year young kids are sacrificed to the Ancient Ones to keep them from destroying the world. The Ancient Ones want a certain type of person sacrificed: the Whore, the Athlete, the Scholar, the Fool, and finally the Virgin.

“But I’m not a virgin,” Dana protests weakly.

“We work with what we’ve got,” the Director explains.

It comes down to this – to save the world, Dana has to shoot Marty, the Fool’s death needing to happen while the Virgin’s is only optional. Dana actually raises her gun to shoot Marty but then a werewolf attacks, more chaos ensues, and ultimately Marty and Dana decide to let the Ancient Ones have the Earth back.

Thanks?

I love how CABIN doesn’t back off this point, as at the end of the movie a giant hand of an Ancient One crashes up through the facility and destroys the cabin, signalling bad days ahead for humanity. While there’s plenty of allusions to other horror movies, CABIN doesn’t depend on the conventions of the genre the way the SCREAM franchise does. The largely unknown cast college kids (this movie was filmed prior to Hemsworth getting cast as Thor) are all good, but the real joy of CABIN comes from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, and the frequent cuts away from the cabin to check in with the technicians and scientists. Director Goddard masterfully switches back and forth, and reveals the deeper story of the Ancient Ones slowly.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is a really smart, really funny, really bloody movie.

I love it.

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13 thoughts on “THE CABIN IN THE WOODS: Am I On Speakerphone?

  1. Nice review. BTW, the mysterious saboteur who caused the electrical problems “upstairs” was Marty messing with the wiring after he found the elevator. It was a very subtle reference because of course at the time we thought he was dead, and we didn’t realise the cabin is what was upstairs.

  2. Thanks, Al. I’m sure you’re right Just seems a stretch to me that Marty could have caused that kind of damage. Was it just random luck? I thought the inference was that the attack came from the inside. Too much popcorn, I guess, addled my brain. :) Thanks for the clarification.

    • Yeah it was totally luck.
      as for time frame, we are mislead when Marty is dragged into the hole ‘to his death’. On a second watch the sound you hear which you assume to be Marty being hacked up is in fact Marty hacking up the zombie.

  3. Nice review Mark. You’re saying it stands alone as its own film then? I was a little concerned, from the previews and from what a couple people I know were saying, that it would come off as more of a mash-up of survival horror video games and monster movies. A dash of F.E.A.R., a little Silent Hill, some Evil Dead for good measure, that sort of thing. Glad to hear it was all baked into something that seems to be more than the sum of its parts.

    • It definitely stands on its own, Eric. You can certainly look at, say, the cabin and go, “Oh, yeah, Evil Dead” or see a particular monster and think, “Jason,” but all of that kind of thinking is practically irrelevant to enjoying the movie. CABIN is infinitely more interested in being its own kind of horror movie than acting as a commentary on horror movies and its made to tell this story rather than simply cherry-picking from other stories.

  4. I’m with you, Mark. I’m not convinced at all it was Marty causing all that damage whether intentional or accidentally. I did like how he ended up being the hero of the piece and not the more conventional hero types as played by Chris Hemsworth and Jesse Williams.

    I also liked the nod to various pop culture monsters/horror movies icons. Was that clown supposed to be Stephen King’s Pennywise?

    • Yeah, I’m just not convinced it was Marty, either. Now, we don’t necessarily need to know who it was because the Ancient Ones could have lackeys running around. I’m glad they didn’t go the route of making the new security guard the guilty party because I hate when there’s a new guy starting on the most important day.

      I do think the clown was a nod to Pennywise, but I also appreciate that you don’t need to know that to enjoy that scene. I think it helps CABIN by being not obvious with their cleverness.

    • Well, Marty, hero … yeah, apart from the fact that by talking Dana out of killing him, he causes the end of the world.

      But in a non-conventionally heroic way, sure …

  5. This was a great summary of the film! I absolutely LOVED this movie, I was cracking up the whole time. I’m not sure which bit I found funnier: the speakerphone scene, or the whole running gag about the Merman. The movie trailer does not do the the movie justice. Hands down, this movie does indeed stand on its own.

  6. I LOVED this movie, it was by far the most original and entertaining film I’ve seen in years. In fact, I’d say it stands up as 1 of the best horror movies ever, and definitely one of the two best horror movies of the last 10 years (the other being “Insidious”).

  7. I loved this flick as well. The unicorn attack had to be my favorite random movie moment of the year. What’s odd is the polarized reaction to TCITW. Check Amazon’s user reviews . . there are a lot of 5-star reviews and a lot of 1-star reviews. Seems you either were in on the joke and loved it or didn’t like your expectations being subverted and just loathed it. I can’t imagine anyone but a priggish churl not enjoying the nutso final act.

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