We know what you’re thinking: Based on its somewhat routine commercials and trailer, The Cabin in the Woods looks like your basic rehashing of everything from Evil Dead to Friday the 13th. Well, guess what? You’ve fallen directly into director/co-writer Drew Goddard’s and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon’s trap, assuming your interest has been piqued enough to see the film this weekend. The simplistic thesis statement of this review: Do exactly that, as soon as humanly possible.
Playing on damn near every familiar horror movie cliché and set-up known to genre heads, The Cabin in the Woods bites on all of the tried-and-true beats, chews them up, and spits them out into a nasty pile of brilliantly constructed and executed chum. Frankly, it’s going to be mission impossible for the next horror filmmakers to attempt flicks using any of the concepts that Goddard and Whedon have deconstructed so efficiently here.
And what are those recognizable ticks? Try the film’s spoiler-free breakdown on for size: Five party-seeking college kids, including such overused archetypes as the affable jock (Chris Hemsworth), the wisecracking stoner (Fran Kranz), and the kinky sexpot (sexy Aussie Anna Hutchison), head off to the athletic heartthrob’s cousin’s secluded nook located deep in some far-off woods. Once there, their shared agenda merely consists of getting drunk, having sex, and smoking Mary Jane, but, as early as Cabin’s intentionally off-putting and seemingly out of place first scene, it’s clear that there’s a much larger, conspiratorial plot going on beyond the kids’ control.
Concurrently, a pair of sarcastically witty older gents (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) are shooting the proverbial shit about their domestic headaches when a co-worker (Whedon project regular Amy Acker) alerts them to a workplace glitch, one that connects them to the titular cabin’s fun-loving youngsters in ways we’d rather leave for you to discover in a darkly lit, packed (hopefully, at least) theater.
Goddard doesn’t waste any time before slicing and dicing through a laundry list of the genre’s most overdone sights, antagonists, and narrative progressions; before the kids arrive at their weekend getaway, they stop at a shady-looking gas station to ask for directions, only to be talked down to and freaked out by a grizzled, foreboding attendant named Mordecai (Tim De Zarn). But, just when Mordecai, “the harbinger,” starts to feel too on-the-nose, other characters, who shall remain nameless here, quickly insult the hell out of him in ways that horror-savvy viewers would if only they could break the fourth wall. And that’s the M.O. throughout The Cabin in the Woods: introduce something that you’ve seen before in countless other horror films and then promptly rail against it in manners that promote all-inclusive fun, not stone-faced seriousness. And then repeat.
When writing the subversive and gleefully mental script, Goddard and Whedon clearly tapped into their personal adorations for the genre, and that degree of fanboy enthusiasm shines brightly in every second of The Cabin in the Woods. So much so that once the completely insane, all-bets-are-off final 20 minutes kick into gear, one gets the impression that Goddard and Whedon were giggling like little Japanese schoolgirls playing with happy frogs (you’ll see what we mean) while writing money-shots that pay homage to nearly everything they’ve loved about the genre. It’s a contagious strain of excitement that definitely seeped into the minds of the film’s down-for-whatever cast, all of whom—particularly Jenkins (an esteemed Oscar-caliber actor having a real blast here), Whitford, and Kranz—sell every horror-comedy scare, laugh, and eye-rubbing, did-they-really-just-do-that moment.
There’s a pair of inquiries that Goddard and Whedon seem hell-bent on asking throughout the film: Why do horror fans so emphatically want to see beautiful girls get hacked up and innocent, yet often moronic, youngsters die grisly deaths? And, ultimately, who’s really calling the shots during a horror movie? What makes The Cabin in the Woods so triumphant is that not only do they provide answers in the forms of multiple hugely satisfying payoffs, Goddard and Whedon couple that shrewd intelligence with shameless lunacy. In turn, they’ve blessed us with the most crowd-pleasing and riotous horror movie in “ancient ones” know how long.