A lot of people are comparing “The Cabin in the Woods,” the new thriller, to other movies that simultaneously exploited, explored and expanded on horror film themes, notably “Scream.”
But besides being better than “Scream,” “Cabin” reminds me more of a grown-up and bloody “Monsters Inc.,” the Pixar animated movie about a company that specializes in giving kids nightmares with monsters under their bed and in their closet.
Since I didn’t see “Cabin” until a week after it opened, I’m going to assume anyone reading this has either seen the movie or heard the basic story by now. So there might be some spoilers ahead. I won’t spoil the ending, though.
“Cabin” was written by “Avengers” director and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon and directed and co-written by Drew Goddard. On the surface, it plays like a “Friday the 13th” throwback: A group of college students — a jock, a stoner, a brain, a shy girl and a slut — go to a remote cabin to party.
From the very start, though, the audience knows something else is going on. The group is being monitored by office monkeys/scientists in a war room-style bunker. Not only are the watchers seeing everything that happens as the five get to the cabin; they’re manipulating the players and events. Gas is pumped through vents that prompts the partiers to behave in particular ways. A mild electric shock runs through the handle of a knife to make the person holding it drop it.
A few spooky things happen in the cabin — not the least of which is the uncharacteristic behavior of the five — but the movie shifts into high gear when they venture into the cabin’s basement and find hundreds of old and obscure items, including a necklace, reels of film, a studded metal ball (more than a little reminiscent of the mechanical nightmare box from the “Hellraiser” movies) and a diary of the former occupants of the cabin.
The partiers choose — and seal — their fate when they become engrossed in the diary, even reading aloud a passage in Latin. It is here when the movie seems most like “Scream,” as the stoner warns against reading the words aloud. He’s seen enough movies to know what might happen.
Before long, the long-dead cabin occupants have crawled out of their graves and begun stalking the teens.
Of course, it is the lab scenes that set “Cabin” apart from the “Evil Dead” films. We quickly find out that the lab workers are monitoring the goings-on at the cabin — as well as other sites around the world — and causing terror and mayhem. The reason? They’re servants of the ancient, Lovecraftian gods, the old ones, that once dominated the earth. And they know that bad things will happen if those gods aren’t appeased by their sacrifice.
The lab workers are also the source of much of the film’s humor, which is as crass and mean-spirited as it is funny. The scientists, led by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, are cold-hearted (mostly) and unfeeling as they must be. Their jobs are to stage modern-day human sacrifices. There’s no room for bleeding hearts here — except for the ones being ripped out on the lab’s monitors.
It’s hard to imagine, given the ending, how a sequel to “Cabin” could happen, but I guess a prequel is possible. What’s more likely is the Internet will fill up with speculation/fan fiction set in the world in which “Cabin” takes place that will fill in the backstory of the lab and its workers, how their system was set up and maintained and how it otherwise interacted with the outside world. Do the lab workers commute? Is the lab government-sponsored?
The lab workers, who also include Amy Acker and Tom Lenk from Whedon’s “Buffy” and “Angel,” are perfectly cast and always believable.
The archetype young people offered up for sacrifice are likewise terrific. The movie was made a couple of years ago and sat on the shelf not because of its quality but because its original studio, MGM, was having money problems. Since then, Chris Hemsworth (who plays the jock) has become a star as the Marvel comics character “Thor.” He’s got a big summer between this and “The Avengers.” Hemsworth is good and he and his four co-stars — Kristin Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz — are well-cast and play their parts perfectly. Kranz, who was in Whedon’s “Dollhouse” TV series, is very Shaggy-reminiscent as the stoner.
The sterile, underground labs and monster holding cells of “Cabin” reminded me of the Initiative, the secret military experiment from the fourth season of Whedon’s “Buffy.” Only instead of stocking a compound full of monsters to kill teenagers, the Initiative captured monsters to experiment on them.
Another “Buffy” echo: “Cabin” builds on the idea of thousands of years of human sacrifice to appease evil. Of course in “Buffy,” the Slayers and Watchers were created, thousands of years ago, to fight evil.
I hope someone’s working on a detailed analysis of the whiteboard in the war room that contained all the monsters and scenarios. I tried to read as much of it as I could and caught some of the other threats like “Kevin” — a Jason stand-in, possibly? — but I would love to see everything that was up there.
Do you think the monsters in the movie were supposed to be real in their world? Or were they created, “inspired” by old horror tales and movies? Or does — as one clever person I know suggested — “Cabin” take place in the same world as all those old horror movies, finally taking us behind the scenes of Jason, Michael Myers, Freddy and all the rest?
“Cabin” is, for those with strong hearts and stomachs, cool, geeky fun. Maybe best of all, it made me want to re-watch “Buffy” episodes and some favorite recent horror movies.