|o my mind, all film critics and movie buffs pre-April 2012 could be split into two factions. There were the joyless, soulless, humorously bankrupt viewers with nary an original thought in their mind nor a true emotion in their heart, and then there were the Joss Whedon fans.
Now, I'm not one of these immature, Firefly fanboys who would take pleasure at the thought of millions of sneerful cynics across the globe bowing their heads in shame and offering themselves as sacrifice in penance for any previous snide comments about Buffy. And I certainly wouldn't proclaim Joss Whedon to be a God, as is the popular mantra among his following, because that would be ridiculous. But, as I recall - and there's every chance that my strong sense of validation at this time may have coloured the memory - April 2012 saw actual rejoicing in the streets as flocks of film fans finally let Whedon into their hearts and sang praise be to He, father of all creation. Like I say though, I could be remembering that wrong. I just recall lots of actual eating of words at a specially-created altar shaped like Serenity. Because this was the Beginning, in which He created The Cabin In The Woods, and we all saw that it was good. Nay, it was magnificent.
Forgive me if I seem proud, or if I appear to be gloating, and please appreciate my restraint in not shouting "I fucking told you so" to an imaginary throng of naysayers who probably never really existed outside of a few people I have known to roll their eyes at the mere mention of Dr Horrible. But, with the cinematic one-two punch of The Cabin In The Woods and The Avengers, there was an undeniable movement in accepting Joss Whedon into the mainstream. 2012 was Whedon's year and seeing so many people celebrating his talent was a wonderful thing to experience for a longstanding fan like myself. So much so that I am perfectly happy to er... skip over one huge detail.
That is, of course, despite the majority of acclaim falling to him, Joss Whedon was far from being the sole filmmaker responsible for The Cabin In The Woods. If the film is anyone's, it belongs to Drew Goddard, who co-wrote the script with the J-man and brought it to life on screen. It’s a collaboration from start to finish, with Whedon originally coming up with the idea, the pair locking themselves in a hotel room for three days to bash out the script and then Goddard taking on directing duties while Whedon stayed on as producer, but it's ultimately Goddard who put their vision up for all to see.
It shouldn't be remarkable, but the result of this collaboration is a film that feels like an unusually personal project. Everything about the film – from conception to execution – just seems so effortless, and so unaffected by studio input. The hard-to-sell, hard-to-pitch premise is a horror geek's haven of meta-parody and homage, a movie that revels in the horror clichés it is trying to send up. This isn't a movie that denounces all slasher films as being lazy and unimaginative, it’s one that celebrates the genre and pushes itself and all subsequent horror films to try harder and be better – something that you wouldn't imagine to be at the top of a studio's wishlist.
As Goddard himself explained in our very own interview with him: "We just sat down and said 'Let's say we get the chance to build the ultimate horror movie and pack everything we've ever wanted into one movie – what would we do?' We didn't pitch it to studios, it wasn't an assignment, we just wrote what we always wanted to see and hoped someone would let us make it. It was a dream, because they said yes to everything and we got to do it the way we wanted to do it."
The end product is a film that plays a dual role. It's sharply brilliant in its surface simplicity, but also dark and devilish in its underlying complexity. It's a film that has one hell of a killer twist, but rather than reveal it as a plot shock at the film's climax, the twist is slowly unravelled from the very beginning until – upon first viewing, at least – it is at around the halfway mark that you fully understand the set-up here. That's because the idea of a corporate facility instigating the deaths of a group of expendable teenagers through various traditional horror means in order to appease ancient malevolent gods is not an easy sell. But as the concept is drip-fed throughout the first half of the movie, we can concentrate on the customary horror tropes unfolding in the cabin, until everything clicks into place.
With both layers firmly established, Goddard and Whedon quickly get on with having fun, but they can't be commended enough for how richly written this is for what could have easily been a throwaway film. Firstly, their deliberately disposable teenagers seem like more rounded, fully formed people than are found in most of the horror films they are trying to caricature. Chris Hemsworth's jock Curt is not just a dumb meathead, Fran Kranz's stoner Marty is the most aware character of the whole bunch ("Okay, I'm drawing a line in the fucking sand here. Do not read the Latin!") and, needless to say, Dana is the kind of strong female heroine that Whedon has clearly copyrighted for himself and himself alone.
Secondly, by having Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins' office worker drones observing and manipulating the horror action, they get to act as the audience, providing hilarious commentary on the characters' behaviour and the situation ("I am never gonna see a merman. Ever.") while also highlighting the absurdity of everyday office procedures in such extraordinarily bizarre circumstances (the sweepstake is so perfectly pitched).
And it's not all just down to clever plotting and exceptional characterisation. Special mention should go to the 'purge' moment towards the end of the film – a scene in which all of the monsters locked up in the facility, including zombies, clowns, a snake, molesting trees, witches, aliens, a merman, a unicorn and 'Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain' fill the screen in an instant of pure gratifying chaos. Forget for a moment the unlikelihood of needing a button that simultaneously opens all of their cages and try to think: when was the last time a film provided such a glorious flash of brilliance that demands to be rewound, paused and replayed again and again?
It's all in the ethic. This isn't a film designed to deliver sickening gore and stomach-churning distress and anguish – it's one that honours traditional horror movies and celebrates them in a way that has never been seen before. In an interview with Total Film, Joss Whedon himself said of the film: "It's a serious critique of what we love and what we don't about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be all right but at the same time hoping they'll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don't like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction."
But did they ultimately redress that balance? Upon its release, The Cabin In The Woods was heralded with a poster that proclaimed it to be "A game-changer", but is it? For all of the film's posturing about correcting the horror equilibrium, it seems that no one has been listening. The genre is still much in the same place as it was two years ago, with faceless fodder being subjected to unspeakable atrocities all in the name of entertainment.
What the film has done though, if you really want to look at it this way, is change how we view those other movies. With its simple self-aware premise, all horror films released before and since can be watched within the context of that established in this movie: that they are all part of a facilitated operation to appease some unseen evil beast. So, while The Cabin In The Woods may not have changed the face of horror filmmaking, they have changed our experience of watching those films, re-writing every single one. Game-changing or not, that's an astonishing feat, and it's all thanks to the combined genius of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. I fucking told you so.
More from the Top 10 Films Of Our Lifetime tomorrow.