At the end of The Cabin in the Woods, the world is destroyed by an apocalyptic hand of fate—an actual hand, mind you—yet that is not a spoiler, not really. The real spoilers in the film are in the tricky mechanics crafted by writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (Goddard also directs) to get there, an intricate design that makes the film nearly impossible to talk about without giving away surprises. A horror comedy with a structural twist intended to emit an air of being something more, Cabin has an off-putting vibe of cocky self-confidence, a “don’t you get it” conviction that it’s something special. As with people, it’s not a charming quality in a movie.
The basic setup, the talk-about-able part, and the movie ostensibly being sold to audiences is that a group of five college kids goes up to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of hijinks. They are a near-perfect collection of stereotypes/archetypes of their genre—the jock, the party girl, the nice girl, the joker-stoner, and the black guy—each there to subvert/upend expectations. Amid their initial bit of partying and carrying on, they find an assortment of spooky knickknacks and creepy paraphernalia in the cellar that triggers the larger plan, and they soon find themselves under attack, first from a “zombie redneck torture family” and then all further manner of nightmare creatures.
The poster for the film is a small cabin twisted into sections like a Rubik’s Cube, correctly implying that the story is set someplace more than just a simple secluded retreat and that there are most definitely people working the gears and levers to make things happen. (Hint: It might help to ask yourself why actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, witty, self-aware performers well past their coed years, are in the credits.) Through it all, Whedon and Goddard attempt to honor, send up, and advance genre conventions simultaneously.
Sometimes it works. But too often Whedon and Goddard want it both ways, trying to make the audience have a genuine reaction while at the same time never letting go of the self-conscious acknowledgment of what they are doing and the way they are leading the audience to that response. In a manner not unheard of in the Whedon universe, which includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, the supernatural is normalized, treated as just another part of life. But unlike Buffy, Cabin doesn’t seem to care much about its characters’ lives. At one point, a girl is brutally attacked in the background of a scene as others distractedly party away. It’s meant as a disconcerting joke, yet the way in which the scene blithely plays out is also emblematic of the film’s larger people problem. With Goddard and Whedon much more invested in their own clever storytelling and genre-nerd inside jokes than in human emotion and motivations, viewers can’t be expected to care much, either.
More than anything else, Cabin feels like the endgame of so-called fanboy culture in the way in which it is first and foremost about itself, interested only in a fundamental adherence to rules of its own devising and fenced off from the world at large. Even the way in which the story dares the anger of the spoiler-sensitive feels like a bit of cute game-playing (which, admittedly, we’re buying into).
The Cabin in the Woods does pull off some neat tricks of narrative realignment; other screenwriters will be impressed. But a film created simply for the sake of regarding its own genre smarts is a hollow vessel. Without a human, emotional component, there actually isn’t much to spoil.