Anyone stumbling into The Cabin In The Woods because of its generic horror-movie title won’t have to wait long before they figure out they’ve come to the wrong place. Strolling through a lab, a pair of engineers played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins talk about weekend plans, baby-proofing, and minor marital woes before a third engineer (Amy Acker) informs them that “Stockholm just went south,” news they receive without much concern. After all, whatever just happened in Stockholm couldn’t happen to them. Whatever they’re talking about, it doesn’t feel like horror-movie business at all until the credits announce the title. Then it starts to feel like horror-movie business in a hurry.
The film shifts to a bunch of suspiciously post-grad-looking coeds planning a weekend trip. As star Kristen Connolly hangs out in her underwear, her newly blonde friend Anna Hutchison encourages her to let loose a little over the weekend, to forget about classes and the professor who broke her heart, and maybe even get to know handsome, brainy newcomer Jesse Williams. Hutchison’s jock boyfriend (Chris Hemsworth) soon joins them, followed by Fran Kranz, a stoner with a lot of theories about the secret forces that shape the world. Together, they’re the perfect set of stock characters to head off to a remote cabin where, in a certain type of movie, bad things happen.
And they are in that type of movie. Sort of. Where Scream put a postmodern twist on slasher films, The Cabin In The Woods takes on the whole genre and twists even harder. Director Drew Goddard, screenwriter of Cloverfield and a veteran of Lost and Alias, co-wrote the film’s script with Joss Whedon, who worked with him on Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. The script brings to the fore Whedon’s love of subverting clichés while embracing them and teasing out their deeper meaning. Driving to the cabin, the gang stops at a decrepit gas station manned by a menacing, grizzled figure. The characters laugh at him, seeming to recognize him as the stock figure he is; then the film pulls back even further to reveal his true role in the story. That, too, gets played for laughs, but of a much darker sort.
Acker and Kranz, who delivers a stoned twist on the paranoid genius he played on Dollhouse, are both veterans of Whedon projects, Whitford and Jenkins clearly delight in the verbose script, and the relatively unknown newcomers fit in just as well. (Hemsworth has since become famous for playing Thor during the time Cabin, which was originally due for a 2010 release, spent on the studio shelf due to MGM’s financial woes.) They rise to the difficult challenge of putting across a satirical film with a serious body count. Cabin touches on everything from The Evil Dead and Friday The 13th to the mechanized mutilations of the Saw series while digging deeper into the Lovecraftian roots of horror in an attempt to reveal what makes the genre work. The answers prove unsettling, both within the world of the film and in their implications for the world outside it. It’s an exercise in metafiction that, while providing grisly fun, never distances viewers. And it’s entertaining, while asking the same question of viewers and characters alike: Why come to a place you knew all along was going to be so dark and dangerous?
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Cabin In The Woods' Spoiler Space.