This film does succeed in doing something incredibly rare though. It succeeds in it's narrative and pure presentation, while also being a kind of weird experiment at exactly the same time. Most films that make the attempt to do both, end up being successful with one aspect, and missing aspects of the other part in a way that is noticeable during the film's viewing. Much of what works in this film is due to the fact that it has a manically paced forward motion that does not slow down for a second. There is so much packed into this film that it's kind of astounding that writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard were able to pull all of it off as well as they have. More often than not, when a film is paced this quickly, and bubbles with this much energy, it's a method used to cover up the things in the film that don't work. If the film makers don't give the audience enough time to digest what they've just seen and throw some entirely new scenario, dilemma or set piece at the audience before they have time to really think about it, the audience doesn't think about it until after the film is over. If they enjoyed the experience of seeing the film, and realize later that things don't quite work or really fit together when they think about it, they're still much more likely to be charitable toward the film because the initial experience was satisfying. That's not what's happening with Cabin In The Woods. This is the kind of film that will hold treasures on repeated viewings, little things the interested viewer didn't pick up initially. The real beauty of that pace is that in this instance, there is no realization that there is this kind of grand experiment playing out (in the narrative, and also between the film and the audience) until the film is already over. If anything is going to save this film with the kind of mass audience film studios generally love to court, it's going to be the fact that the pacing and the writing make it an extremely entertaining experience. The tension and the laughs, combined with the Mach 4 speed of the film translate into something that feels at first like the most fun forms of pure cinema entertainment. Considering it later is going to reveal just how much is going on in this film, and just how well all of that works within the narrative and in the films structure.
That's just the entertainment value of the film, of which there is more than enough to go around. The real feat is that there's a smartly written comment on film making, horror films, and audience expectations deeply woven into the texture of the film and the surface narrative. That narrative subtext works just as well or better than the narrative on the surface, and for the audience that's been following the film since production was announced five years ago, it adds yet another layer by being a reflexive comment on the fact that it sat on a shelf for three years because no distributor was willing to take a gamble on it until Joss Whedon was attached to The Avengers (and having now finally gotten the opportunity to see Cabin In The Woods, I'm even more excited about The Avengers). This isn't to say Cabin In The Woods has any pretensions about being either an art film or some kind of masterwork of socially conscious film making, but that it's creative team aren't bound to the idea that film has to necessarily be either entertaining or have something else to say. It's a pretty perfect example of the idea that both can be achieved in the same film with some deft writing and direction.
Cabin In The Woods isn't a horror film, even though that's more or less how it's being marketed. It's part horror film, part science fiction, part adventure movie and part meta commentary, jam packed into 95 minutes. Lionsgate's marketing department deserves a pass on this one though, because they're not necessarily misleading the audience with the trailers and commercials they've put out. Giving away any more than they do would be a detriment to the audience experience of seeing the film for the first time. That said, in some aspects, the marketing campaign is going to work in their favor, and in some aspects, it's not. For the kind of horror audience that has a dedicated love of the genre as a whole (including literature) it's going to be one of the more exciting and thoughtful films they've seen in a really, really long time. There's been a lot of comparison to Scream in the reviews and press about the film, but ultimately, that's both a lazy and unfair comparison. Cabin In The Woods is taking a perspective on horror films closer to that which Network took toward television news. It's satire and it's commentary aren't as omnipresent, but it is very much the same kind of laughing at, making fun of and being somewhat disgusted and horrified by. Some people will probably also connect the film with some degree of commentary about reality television, and though I can see how one might find that in the film to a certain degree, it's a tenuous connection, and I think it's pretty obvious that's not exactly what the film makers intended. Like a number of the films which have attempted to make some commentary about reality television, Cabin In The Woods definitely has a few questions for it's audience, but that's a larger cultural connection not specific to either this film or reality television more generally. Tonally, and as far as the goal the film is attempting to achieve by it's conclusion, it probably most resembles Fight Club. There's some really dark humor, some shockingly graphic content, some hard questions asked of the audience that will be uncomfortable for the casual film goer, but will present some really interesting discussions and ideas for the kind of movie goer who appreciates it when a film does attempt to engage them this way and still sees film as a viable medium for asking these kinds of questions.
The performances in the film are all at least effective. There's no one in this film that sucks, and that may not sound very complimentary, but there's so much going on and the film is moving at such a rapid pace, there isn't a whole lot of time for any single performance to really shine. None of the performances feels false or out of place, none of them rip the audience out of the experience of the films narrative. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are given the best lines and the meatiest parts in the film when the narrative is taken as a whole, but even they don't have the kind of premium screen time that's going to highlight exactly how good they are in the roles they're given. They've been given the best comedic moments in the film and they're also central to both the surface narrative and the meta narrative under the surface. There's a lot of potential in a feature length comedy pairing the two actors, because they compliment each other really well, are recognizable enough to most audiences that their familiarity will convey the kind of trust an audience puts in it's lead actors, but not so recognizable they come with the kind of associations that are attached to more recognizable leading men.
IMDB has the estimated budget for the film at thirty million dollars, and every cent of it is on the screen. For your average American film in the multiplex, thirty million isn't really all that high of a budget, but Goddard makes great use of it. Considering the production values that so many celluloid crap fests churn out with a considerably larger budget, Cabin In The Woods looks and feels like much more expensive film than it ultimately was. It's packed with effects of the digital and practical variety. There are some pretty gory moments, and the third act of the film is a wonderland for horror fans, in every conceivable way. The effects are all effective and like the performances aren't necessarily meant to be eye popping or revelations of any kind on their own, but serve the story exactly the way they're meant to. There were no moments of really bad effects eliciting the kind of grown I'm prone to in a film with a budget of this size. Again, there are films with budgets twice and three times Cabin In The Woods that have much, much worse effects, both digitally and practically.
For those who might be interested in the meta narrative aspects of the film, but might also shy away from the horror aspects, don't be too worried. There are a few really bloody sequences in the film, but they Goddard doesn't linger on the gore in the way many horror films do. They have a purpose, they convey that purpose and then he's done with them. As a whole, the film skirts the line between the expectations of gore hounds and a more general audience admirably. If there's any place it might disappoint two prospective audiences simultaneously, it's in the gore aspect. General audiences will probably find it slightly gorier than is to their liking, and the gore hounds of the horror set will probably walk away having hoped for slightly more blood and bodily dismemberment. There are very few instances of violence occurring in the actual frame, so the opportunities to present gore fans with the kinds of effects they thrill and wonder at are minimum.
So who should really go to see Cabin In The Woods, and what audiences are actually most likely to really enjoy it? It's a tough question to answer. There's a whole lot to enjoy about the film. It's definitely entertaining, and isn't self indulgent enough for the meta narrative to get in the way of general audience appreciation for it. At the same time, it flouts the conventions of the horror genre (and the film many people are going to be expecting to see as a result of the marketing) in a way that's going to seriously piss some of them off or leave them feeling unsatisfied with the theater experience of the film. Others are going to find fault with the lack of exposition it dedicates to one of the larger aspects of the story. It's all there, definitely, but there's a good deal of information that's either inferred through dialog and isn't directly explained or is portrayed visually. The kind of audience that likes it's story spoon fed to it is going to be alienated by the degree to which it treats them like they should be able to keep up without all that exposition. Anyone who finds the concept of meta narratives deeply annoying, is going to dislike it.
Anyone whose taste in movies fits those descriptions shouldn't go see it. It's definitely worth seeing, and worth the price of admission, but for those audiences, it's probably best to catch it on VOD, Netflix or what ever other form they choose. It's the kind of film that's worth seeing for what you don't like about as much as for what you do.
The audience most likely to get enjoyment out of this film is the one that is least cynical about film in general. The casual theater goer who walks into any theater, hoping they're going to get ninety minutes or two hours worth of entertainment and expects nothing more, is going to enjoy it. There's no shortage of entertainment value. There are aspects of this film that are going to blow those people away, and they're going walk away saying, "Holy shit. I didn't think you could do that." The third act is going to give them something they never knew they wanted.
In a similar vein, those of us with a more dedicated love of film as something more than just idle entertainment (and that's not meant as a slight to those who do see it that way), and are able to go into a theater and hope that a film succeeds at what it sets out to do (and see anything beyond pure entertainment as an added bonus) are going to find this a really satisfying experience. There's enough going on in the meta aspect to be worth the time of unpacking it and considering it. It's well crafted and obviously a labor of love by two quixotic film makers. This audience will appreciate it for at least what it tries to do, even if they find it a little light on the more satirical commentary aspects.
Then there are two audiences who are going to have a deep, passionate love for this film. The dedicated horde of Joss Whedon fans are going to absolutely fall in love with it. They enjoy and appreciate anything he does, but this is going to really hit the sweet spot for them. It has all of the aspects of Whedon's work they've fallen in love with in the past, and it ties them together in the kind of ways they find interesting, creative and quirky. I'm a casual fan of Whedon's work. He's an obviously gifted writer, with an ear for dialog and imbues most of his work with a really big, gooey, non-apologetic heart. I appreciate and respect that, but I can't be counted among the kind of Whedon fans who were responsible for making enough of a clamor that his television show Firefly ended up getting the chance to make the jump to feature film as Serenity, and got a second network to pick up Buffy The Vampire Slayer after it was cancelled on it's first network. They are a passionate, dedicated lot that very few creative professionals are fortune enough to be the attention point for. For those folks, there are little bite sized chunks of everything Whedon has been doing that makes him distinct as a creative voice.
The other audience that is going to come away from this film with nothing but the highest respect for it is the one I probably most fit into. People who have a deep passion for film, and came to that passion through genre films, and aren't completely cynical about either. Every second of it has something that genre fans are going to pick up on in one way or another, and in exactly the opposite way that Scream attempted to do this. It's not just throwing all of that on top of a well crafted giallo type of mystery in order to say, "Hey, remember how cool all this is? Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge." It's not cynical in that way at all. It's not trying to draw ten bucks from your wallet with a passing reference to the fact that it recognizes the things that made you a fan of film and genre fiction. It's doing a lot more than that. It's speaking directly to you, about your relationship to the kinds of horror films coming out in theaters today from the creators perspective, not from the studio perspective. It's speaking as directly to a number of other types of audience as well, but the truth is some of those audiences aren't going to pick up on that fact, and some of them are either going to find it insulting or lacking in enough "substance" to be worth considering. I'm going to call bullshit on the "substance" argument right now, because there's a whole hell of a lot of substance in there, it's just not packaged in the kind of self serious way that particular audience tends to find most appealing. Like the kind of audience that is going to be irritated by the lack of exposition for certain aspects of the film, the audience that will complain about "lack of substance" in the "message" of the film like to have those things laid out for them in the most crystal clear way with the least possibility for misunderstanding, with a heavy dose of "indie," "art house" or whatever other necessary vehicle they demand to satisfy their own sense of self importance. In short, if you have a love for genre films as being truly equal to any other variety of film (and possibly more important in the larger cultural sense) this is a movie you're going to enjoy and understand more thoroughly than just about every other conceivable audience. I'll discuss much of this in more detail in the next part of this review where spoilers will be allowed.
Cabin In The Woods is one of the best horror films of the last decade and one of the best deconstructist horror films of all time.