Review by Ryan Wilson

Few writer/directors carry the favor of a cult audience like writer/director Joss Whedon. These devotees, in many ways, are more interesting than Whedon’s scattered movies, TV shows, and comic books; they absorb his work with a sort of delirious supremacy, much like fans of a still undiscovered rock band, happy to be a part of a small community defined by their superior taste. But like a music group going mainstream, Whedon is poised to ultimately outgrow his fanatical base with next month’s blockbuster The Avengers. Thus, last week’s release of the much-delayed The Cabin in the Woods, co-scripted by Whedon, may be the last chance Whedonites get to revel in the master’s purity.

As a member of this cult, I can’t really over-state how much I enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods. The film functions like a really great episode of Buffy, Angel, or Dollhouse, combining the best elements of all three. Like Buffy, the heroes of the film ultimately become the resilient female lead and her geeky male sidekick. Like Angel, which eventually overshadowed Buffy, beneath the sheen of the horror genre exists a subversive and hilarious commentary on the nature of good and evil. And like the too soon defunct Dollhouse, what first appears exploitative becomes a meta-statement about exploitation itself.

The movie has been marketed correctly in that it doesn’t really advertise itself beyond the usual slasher film that gets released every time Friday the 13th rolls around. In its most basic premise the story promises that a group of co-eds will get hacked to pieces in the woods over a weekend getaway. And for a good portion of the film, we go through these motions with as much winking as we see in the Scream franchise, with characters announcing just how stereotypical they are (or are becoming). Yet Whedon and director Drew Goddard know that self-awareness by itself wears thin, much like the writer who writes himself into his own story.

To deepen the film, the narrative splits time with what can only be described as the office drones of evil, led by the hilarious Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. I can’t really explain their presence beyond that, but I can say that they provide the best REO Speedwagon joke of all time in the midst of all the carnage. This is vintage Whedon and Goddard, who worked so well together creating similar satire in the Angel TV show, where they created the inspired evil law firm Wolfram Hart. What is evil, after all, but a constant bureaucracy of paperwork, office politics, and monotony, ultimately ending in destruction?

Whedon and Goddard are so clever in fact that halfway through the film they ask us to change our allegiance. Right and wrong, it seems, isn’t so clear-cut. It never is in the Whedon universe. They raise the stakes beyond what we come to see as the minor lives of the co-ed campers, and when the film’s two narratives literally collide, something magnificent happens: we’re treated to perhaps the best monster mash in cinema history (or at least as much fun as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein).

In Whedonesque fashion the humor and horror are able to heighten proportionally. Scary beasties jump out at us in perfect time to perfect punch lines, mostly provided by stoner-geek Fran Kranz, who wields the most powerful bong in film history. Kranz’s geek is really the filmmakers’ surrogate, and he gets to voice his discontent with smart phones, social networks, basically the entire technological grid that deludes us into thinking we’re civilized. When the campers get to their remote cabin and discover its grizzly history, the film’s not just going through the motions of its genre’s exposition but reminding us that something primitive and dark rests beneath these type of movies.

Whedon is interested in myth here, as he is with all of his projects. The film artfully combines the modern archetypes of teen horror films with the even larger archetypes as old as bedtime stories. Unlike the cheap horror films deconstructed here, The Cabin in the Woods isn’t interested in showing us hell. That’s boring. What the film successfully reminds us is that the road to hell is much more fascinating. Whedon and company should be given these sort of unique projects beyond comic book films. Let him go mainstream and revise our known heroes and villains, but we should also let him create his own universe, where the heroes and villains aren’t so simple. Hopefully in the end more than just the diehards will catch up to him.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2012