One of the more inventive new ideas for a horror film since the mid-nineties Scream series, The Cabin in the Woods takes the familiar tropes of an overworked teen horror genre and puts it in a fresh frame.
Co-written by Joss Whedon and first-time director Drew Goddard (Whedon's collaborator on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series and the writer of Cloverfield), Cabin is a meta-horror-comedy mash-up that, at least for two-thirds of its running time, holds together smartly.
Originally shot in 2009, and put on hold because of the financial problems at MGM studios, the film has been widely anticipated in the fan-boy community for the past three years, thanks to producer Whedon's promise to turn the horror genre on its head. He doesn't quite manage that, but this is a savvy blend of the master manipulator scenarios of the Saw films with the rustic massacre movies in the Texas Chainsaw or Evil Dead tradition.
There are five kids on this particular trip, all more or less stock types: There's Jules (Anna Hutchison) the promiscuous blonde; the studious good girl, Dana (Kristen Connolly), who is designed to be, in critic Carol J. Clover's phrase, "the final girl."
There's her potential boyfriend, a sensitive guy named, of course, Holden (Jesse Williams), and a brash jock (Chris Hemsworth, in a role shot earlier than his starring part in Thor). The fifth wheel here is Marty (Fran Kranz), a pothead distinctly reminiscent of Scooby-Doo's Shaggy.
While driving north one day, the gang encounters the usual threatening redneck at the local gas station. They arrive at the cabin amid promises of intoxication and carnality, but down in the cellar Dana discovers an old diary, and an ominous story of sacrifice. Night falls and things start to get busy and nasty.
Well, ho-hum, you might well say, but fortunately, The Cabin in the Woods is not restricted to what happens in a cabin in the woods.
While the teens are busy drinking, making out, playing truth or dare and making unnerving discoveries, there's a parallel story going on. This much is given away in the movie's trailer: There are a couple of wise-cracking lab-coated scientists in a high-tech research facility watching banks of monitors. Played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, they're middle-aged and breezily malevolent in a kind of callous corporate or bureaucratic way. Because they have personalities, they're also a good deal more entertaining than the kids, and in fact, seem to serve as the sadistic surrogates for the seen-it-all-before fan-boy audience.
To say more would give the game away. It's enough to say that, like Scream, Cabin comes with its own built-in commentary track, and lots of allusions to other high and low moments in the horror genre, along with a few decent scares and queasy paranoia. It probably should not be watched while high.
That said, because the beginning is cleverer than you might expect, the eventual let-down also feels more pronounced. The cast never do evolve beyond their status as horror fodder, and, ultimately, the plot gets too coiled up in its ghoulish entrails.
By the final 20 minutes, as the script strains for a mythic backstory, there are far more special effects than are required or desired. When seeing a movie with the words "cabin" and "woods" in the title, it's preferable to keep the ingredients simple: Take some comely young victims, add a creepy location and then mix well with one of those ruptures in the fabric of reality that leads to a vortex of inexorable evil.
The Cabin in the Woods
- Directed by Drew Goddard
- Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
- Starring Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford and Chris Hemsworth
- Classification: 18A
- 3 stars