Cloverfield scribe and Lost executive producer Drew Goddard shot The Cabin in the Woods — the horror comedy he co-wrote with Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon — back in 2009 only to see its release delayed by more than two years thanks to the bankruptcy of the film’s original studio, MGM. That’s long enough for Cabin star Hemsworth to have played the role of Thor twice, the second time in Whedon’s Avengers, which arrives in cinemas just three weeks after Cabin.
Goddard’s waiting game officially ended on March 9, when the gloriously grotesque Cabin opened at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. Though the wait isn’t quite over for the rabid pack of Whedonites and horror junkies anticipating the film’s April 13 release, EW has five new images and a bit of the film’s thrilling backstory to keep the blood lust at bay — at least for a little while.
Cabin‘s basic plot is far from revolutionary: Bad things happen to five college kids (including Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, and Anna Hutchison, pictured above) when they drive out to a you-know-what in the you-know-where. But that’s almost beside the point. During the course of the twist-packed movie, Whedon and Goddard shuffle the horror deck with a demented enthusiasm not seen since Scream. Says costar Bradley Whitford, “It was clear when you read the script that this was a fierce, idiosyncratic vision.” Indeed, the truly remarkable thing about Cabin is not that it took three years to arrive on screens but that its pair of creators thought anyone would let them make it in the first place.
Longtime friends and collaborators Goddard and Whedon envisioned the film as an alternative to “torture porn” movies like Hostel and Saw. “We’ve had a growing disconnect between watching people getting murdered and ‘horror,’ which is not actually about murder,” says Whedon. “It can contain murder, but it’s not limited to it. We wanted to go back to old-school thrilling scares” — like the creepy-crawly moment featuring Kristen Connolly above.
Aware that studio executives might be tempted to tinker with their script’s unusual plot machinations, they “did all the legwork and said, ‘This is the package, take it or leave it’,” explained Goddard. “Luckily, people got it.”
In July 2008, MGM announced it had acquired and greenlit the Cabin script. The project was further developed at MGM’s subsidiary United Artists, which was being partly overseen by Tom Cruise. As a result, Goddard and Whedon found themselves in the unusual position of receiving notes from Jerry Maguire.
In traditional horror-movie style, Goddard cast up-and-comers to play his five archetypal hero-victims: New Zealander Hutchison, Guiding Light‘s Connolly (pictured above), Whedon’s Dollhouse alum Kranz, and Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams. Goddard cast the then relatively unknown Hemsworth to play the film’s jock, Curt. “We probably saw over 100 people for that role,” says Goddard. “I was looking for actors that can break your heart. He just had that. As soon as he walked out of the room I said, ‘That guy’s got the job.’ “
The tinkering that Whedon and Goddard feared inevitably occurred, though studio heads’ post-Avatar insistence on 3-D came to an end when MGM declared bankruptcy in November 2010. Goddard says it soon became clear that the movie was not the top priority in terms of being disentangled from the MGM mess. “It wasn’t just us,” says the director. “It was The Hobbit, it was James Bond. If they’re taking a while [to deal with those projects], we know, ‘Oh, it’s going to take us a while.’ “
Last April, Lionsgate announced it had picked up the movie’s distribution rights, giving stars including Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker, and Bradley Whitford (pictured above, left to right) the chance to finally be seen. Whedon says he is well aware of the irony that the company is home to both the Saw and the Hostel franchises. “It is actually perfect that it’s them,” he says. “Not despite the fact that they’ve released some of the movies this is a reaction to, but because they have. Cabin is an insane frolic in some ways, but it is a horror movie. Their passion for horror is a great match.”
Lionsgate pushed to debut the film at SXSW (Whedon talks to press line, above), and the reviews that followed were almost as ecstatic as the reception it got inside Austin’s Paramount Theatre. Happily, critics seemed determined to heed Whedon’s prescreening plea that audience members “enjoy it, and then sorta keep it to yourself.” Of course, with Cabin’s release date still weeks away, there’s time for people to let at least a few of the film’s herd of cats out of the bag, but that doesn’t seem to concern Goddard: “It’s not a movie that is based on one twist. I’m much more interested in escalation,” he says. “I like people to put all their cards on the table…and start stabbing each other over them!”
(Additional reporting by Adam B. Vary)
For the full backstory, check out “The Year’s Buzziest Fright Flick” in EW’s March 30 “News + Notes” section — on newsstands now!