Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's horror flick starts in familiar territory, then gets delightfully strange.
Stop me if you've seen this one: A handful of attractive young folks representing immediately recognizable types—the good girl, the sexy girl, the jock, the decent guy, the stoner—plan a weekend of partying at a remote cabin in the woods. When they arrive, though, something timeless and implacable begins stalking and brutally slaughtering them one by one. Liquor-fueled rounds of "truth or dare" and displays of nubile flesh give way to screaming and running and bleeding and dying.
On second thought, don't stop me. Even if you've seen this one—even if you've seen it over and over again—you haven't seen this one, this The Cabin in the Woods. Produced by Joss Whedon, who also co-wrote with director (and longtime Whedonite) Drew Goddard, the movie is a delightful demolition of the horror genre, a tale that subverts not only its own terrors, but those of pretty much every scary movie you've ever seen. Why do the protagonists of these films always choose the worst moment and locale to have sex? Why do they split up when it's evident they should stick together? The Cabin in the Woods at last offers answers.
This is a movie best seen with a minimum of foreknowledge, so I'll spoil as little as possible. (I'd strongly recommend avoiding the trailer, which reveals a good deal more than I will.) Suffice to say that there are two interwoven narratives taking place at once: the one in the woods with the kids (among them Kristen Connolly and Thor's Chris Hemsworth); and another, at a secret bunker of the military-industrial complex, where two beleaguered company men (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford), along with a large cadre of technicians, accountants, interns, and various other drones, are hard at work, doing—well, if I told you what they were doing, someone (not me) would presumably have to kill you.
The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie embedded in a conspiracy flick embedded in another horror movie—the most inventive cabin-in-the-woods picture since The Evil Dead and the canniest genre deconstruction since Scream. It is by turns moderately horrifying and wickedly funny, offering more nods and winks than a narcoleptic on jury duty. Look! There's the sour, sun-scorched hillbilly with his cryptic warnings; the placid lake perfect for drowning in; the dark, spidery cellar. And down in that cellar, a treasury of cursed relics ample enough to set in motion a few dozen horror flicks (which is, again, the point). Sly reference is made to The Grudge and Hellraiser, to werewolves and zombies and fishmen and pretty much everything else known to go bump in the night. It is perhaps unfair to saddle the film with too much ambition, but it is, in its openly satiric and exceptionally witty way, a Rosetta Stone for the horror genre.
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Whedonesque touches abound. Fran Kranz (from Whedon's Dollhouse) and Amy Acker (from Dollhouse and Angel) are both featured in the cast. And a delicate spin is given to Whedon's longstanding interest in violence and voyeurism, exploitation and objectification. While the movie indulges in all of the above, it does so with a critical eye. Even as we watch it unfold, we watch others watch, and are as implicated in the pleasure we derive as they are. Reminders of this relationship between observer and observed are sprinkled liberally: It is doubtless no coincidence that a peripheral character is named "Truman," nor that the ultimate arbiter of the gory goings-on is someone known only as "the Director."
If this all sounds a little tedious and pedantic—as Dollhouse occasionally managed to be—it's not. Goddard (who also wrote the tidy diversion Cloverfield) directs with verve and wit, and it's only in the film's final act that it slows to the point where a few minutes might have been profitably excised.
Is The Cabin in the Woods a great film? Of course not. But it is a devilishly cunning entertainment. I, for one, know it will be some time before I watch a conventional horror flick without wondering, at least for a moment, exactly what Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford might be up to, somewhere off-screen.