"The Cabin in the Woods" is gleefully subversive, in both its dissection of genre conventions (horror movie geeks will delight in its hyper-referentiality) and in its critique of the power relations between auteur and audience. But more than that, it's that rare satire that also ranks as an exemplary specimen of the style it's sending up. The comedy is pitch perfect. The thrills, when they come, manage to be creative and unexpected, even as they pay tribute to genre legends like John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and others.
Unfortunately, there's very little that may be said about this without disclosing the premise that drives the film. An analogy, though an imperfect one, may be made to the Richard Rodriguez film "From Dusk Till Dawn," which featured George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as desperados who kidnap a family of vacationers in an RV in order to make it across the border to Mexico. They seek refuge in a sleazy roadhouse, which turns out to be a haunt for vampires. The shift from gritty crime thriller to vampire smackdown delivers a jolt only when you're not cued to expect it from a review. (It's a pity "Cabin's" own trailer doesn't do more to preserve the element of surprise.)
"The Cabin in the Woods" charts two separate tracks. A group of five college students venture off the grid for a weekend at an isolated lakeside house. The group is an absurd collection of stereotypes - a handsome jock (Chris Hemsworth), his slinky girlfriend (Anna Hutchison), her somewhat brainy best friend (Kristen Connolly), a recent transfer (Jesse Williams) and a conspiracy-minded stoner (Fran Kranz). They rumble into the woods in a dilapidated camper van, and find themselves inside a creepy house, where a game of truth or dare leads them into a forbidding basement that is crammed like a dusty museum with the improbably creepy relics of previous owners.
Separately, the film follows a pair of senior engineers at what appears to be a large, militaristic research compound. Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) are droll, self-important and a little burnt out, but enjoying the attention from their colleagues on a big night. Something enormously important is happening, although it's unclear exactly what. While the backdrop has a NASA-like feel, it has a much darker purpose - one that converges with the plight of the five frolicking students, who stumble unaware into mortal danger.
Co-writer Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and director Drew Goddard, who wrote the script for "Cloverfield" and worked on the TV dramas "Lost" and "Alias," spike the story with a heavy dose of meta-narrative. "The Cabin in the Woods" will draw comparisons to Wes Craven's "Scream" franchise, but there are important differences. In "Scream," the characters drew on their own awareness of horror movie cliches as a resource. There's no such conceit in "The Cabin in the Woods."
The students here are archetypal victims - but the unusual frame established by the intersecting stories makes cheering for them problematic, to say the least. This isn't so odd - horror movies, especially the torture porn sub-genre exemplified by the "Saw" franchise, implicate the audience in the depredations of its monsters and killers. After all, we're paying to revel in suspense, dismemberment and death.
"The Cabin in the Woods" plays with this tension by offering the audience an easy out - making it in our interest to root for a bloody outcome. It is this unmooring of traditional expectations that makes "The Cabin in the Woods" so much fun, and at the same time authentically disturbing.
TITLE: "The Cabin in the Woods"
CREDITS: Directed by Drew Goddard. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
RATING: R for gore, horror, nudity and simulated sex
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: ★★★★