We’re into the top five now, as we count down our writers’ favourite films of the year. In fifth place then is a film that was actually shot right back in 2009, and one we feared we’d never get to see on the big screen. We’re glad we did…
The Cabin In The Woods
It’s hard to imagine a more generic horror title than The Cabin In The Woods. And, on paper, it doesn’t sound like a very promising film either: it’s a postmodern horror movie by a first-time director, starring a bunch of vaguely familiar TV actors. But in spite of all that, The Cabin In The Woods was one of 2012’s most exhilarating movies – a true original.
Let’s get the Joss Whedon thing out of the way first. Whedon co-wrote the movie with Drew Goddard, whom he’d previously worked with on Buffy and Angel, and who also wrote the script for the found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. Whedon’s fingerprints are all over The Cabin In The Woods; you can see his influence everywhere, from the casting choices to the snappy dialogue and the genre-defying playfulness of the movie’s tone.
But it’s not entirely Whedon’s movie, not least because he didn’t direct it – and even if he had, that wouldn’t necessarily have guaranteed its success. It feels strange to look back, now, to a time before The Avengers; a time before Joss Whedon’s name meant box office gold. But prior to this summer, Whedon hadn’t really proved himself on the big screen. He’d only directed one film, and though the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series had been a cultural phenomenon a few years earlier, his more recent projects hadn’t set the world alight. Labelling The Cabin In The Woods a ‘Joss Whedon movie’ and leaving it at that, as though that explains everything about why it attracted so much critical and fan adoration, isn’t really fair or accurate. He’s part of its success, definitely, but it’s not all down to him.
For one thing, it’d probably be a lot less gory if it had been. One of the most enjoyable things about the film is the way it balances its horror and comedy, and things do eventually get very, very bloody in a way Whedon doesn’t usually seem comfortable with. Goddard, on the other hand, is clearly a horror lover, and doesn’t shy away from throwing in some nastiness (and blood) when it’s needed. Goddard also brings a clear enthusiasm and affection for horror movies to the film, too, which keeps the film from feeling too snarky.
Because while it’s perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward movie about some kids who go to a cabin in the woods and discover something horrible, it’s also a deliciously barbed deconstruction of the horror genre as a whole. It’s incredibly well observed, and horror fans will enjoy seeing so many well-established tropes being set up, but the real fun is in the way that The Cabin In The Woods takes them all apart again. It borrows liberally from other horror movies, but in a knowing way, and it has a point to make – it wants us to re-examine our relationship with the genre (though not without having fun first). It’s not joyless or academic about it; it’s just that, well, The Cabin In The Woods wonders if horror movies could be different. Better. Lovingly, it suggests that horror serves a purpose in the world, and that maybe, well, maybe horror fans deserve better.
It’s obvious that a lot of love went into the making of this movie. Enthusiasm radiates off the screen, and it’s clear that everyone’s having fun – which is for the best, considering what a hassle it must have been to get some of the scenes to work. (Without spoiling the plot too much, the special effects team probably deserve an award or ten.)
It’s quite a small movie, with an estimated production budget of about $30 million-ish, but it does a hell of a lot with it. You won’t want to blink at any point in the film, but particularly not towards the end, for fear of missing something amazing. It’s definitely a film that rewards multiple viewings – both for the sheer spectacle of it, and to appreciate just how brilliantly and concisely plotted it is.
Plus, despite everything else that’s going on in The Cabin In The Woods, it does a really good job of creating a set of characters you can’t help but care about. Making you root for its characters is one of the toughest challenges any horror movie faces, because you know most of them will die at some point, and that they’ll probably make some really bad decisions along the way, but The Cabin In The Woods makes it look easy – both through the clever writing and through the fantastic performance of, well, the entire cast. There’s not a single character who doesn’t seem to have some kind of inner life, not a single stereotype left un-fleshed out.
So, okay, it might not have made the kind of money that The Avengers did. But for a movie that almost didn’t get released at all, thanks to the collapse of MGM, it did more than did alright for itself, grossing more than $66 million worldwide and scoring a remarkable 91 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Which, considering how critically reviled most horror movies are, is one hell of an achievement.)
It’ll be interesting to see what The Cabin In The Woods’ legacy will be. Usually, when a horror movie is successful, it inspires a slew of copycats – remember when every movie wanted to be Scream, until they wanted to be The Blair Witch Project? More recently, Saw helped launch a whole BBFC-bothering wave of torture porn, before Paranormal Activity rejuvenated the found-footage conceit. But The Cabin In The Woods probably won’t be influential in the same way. It’s hard to imagine other filmmakers trying to make a straight copy of it – but hopefully they were taking notes, because The Cabin In The Woods felt like it was issuing a challenge.
Making cookie cutter movies about kids going out to the woods to get murdered just won’t be good enough anymore. The Cabin In The Woods may have been a love letter to the horror genre, but it was also a much-needed kick in the arse.
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