Giddily playful "Cabin in the Woods" upends and transcends horror genre

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
95 min., rated R.
The first rule of "The Cabin in the Woods" you do not talk about "The Cabin in the Woods." Being one of the most anticipated film releases of the year, it's also the hardest to review without spoiling any of its delightful tricks. So try to avoid all trailers, TV spots, and reviews (save for this one) and go into the film fresh. Writer-director Drew Goddard (who wrote 2008's "Cloverfield" and TV's Lost), co-scribing with writer-producer Joss Whedon (TV's Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), shot his directorial debut back in 2009, only to see its release delayed and stuck in studio limbo after MGM's bankruptcy. Then after a successful run at Austin's SXSW Festival and Lionsgate picking up distribution rights, Goddard and Whedon's creative effort is now seeing the light of day (on Friday the 13th no less), and it was totally worth the wait. What's more, it fully lives up to the buzzing hype. Giddily playful, twistedly creepy, darkly witty, and unsuspectingly ambitious, "The Cabin in the Woods" is a true horror geek's high that will leave them satiated. 

If the following plot synopsis sounds achingly familiar and your thoughts are that you know where this is going, well, you're in for a treat. Five college kidsthe virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly), her gone-blonde friend Jules (Anna Hutchison), Jules' jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), shaggy stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), and Curt's egghead buddy Holden (Jesse Williams) that Jules wants to set up with Danaset out for a weekend getaway in a Rambler RV to party at Curt's cousin's country cabin. The cabin is so off the beaten path it doesn't even show up on a GPS, and a creepy, tobacco-spittin' gas-station attendant (Tim De Zern) issues the kids more of a warning than directions. Once the group gets to the cozy little cabin, something wicked this way comes. Meanwhile, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) wisecrack at work in some corporate facility with a control room. And that's all the plot you're getting here. Let's just say there is something extra wrong with this seemingly textbook picture. 

Before one goes and spits on the horror genre, which frankly has seemed to exhaust itself, "The Cabin in the Woods" will make you rethink that notion. Goddard and Whedon's deep adoration and respect for the genre not only shine through on the surface with the classic locale evoked in the title to the use of stock archetypes, but equipped with their savvy, unpredictably mind-blowing script, the film takes horror and post-modern cinema to the next level. Miles from being just another Identikit horror flick where good-looking kids go into the woods and get killed—B-movie critic Joe Bob Briggs called this type of film "spam-in-a-cabin"this meta-horror deconstruction shakes up the genre and shuffles the deck of horror-movie tropes. It's not too early to say this lightning-in-a-bottle ride could be spoken in the same breath as 1996's transcendent "Scream," taking the self-awareness of life-or-death movie rules and reforming them. The film is all very knowing without ever sounding "pat us on the back, we're clever!," slipping into parody, or displacing the straight-up horror tone, a tricky line first drawn by Wes Craven's brainchild. 

The filmmakers tip us off early that Sitterson and Hadley's parallel storyline fits into the "cabin in the woods" story (in the first scene actually), but the doozy of an explanation is gradually revealed rather than building to and hinging on some "gotcha!" twist ending. Just when you think all the puzzle pieces are all matched up and you have it all figured out, the film escalates from there with gleeful abandon. If the entire film weren't already a blast, the final half-hour piles on a deliriously nutty, balls-to-the-wall Twilight Zone chock-full of phantasmagoric images, energy, and imagination. We're talking a climactic explosion of a shop of horrors and nightmares that floods upon the screen like a horror fan's mouth-watering dream come true. "The Cabin in the Woods" is also an affectionate homage to '70s- and '80s-era horror, particularly Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead," that doesn't skimp out on backwoods atmosphere, frightful spooks, and the red stuff. Cinematographer Peter Deming's ("Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn") simple dolly shot of the rustic cabin itself won't take long to become iconic for the genre. And as a reaction against the trend of "torture porn," Goddard and Whedon shrewdly comment on humanity, creation, and pop-culture in how we've become so desensitized watching youthful puppets being sacrificed, why filmmakers keep making horror movies, and why we've come to expect such primitive thrills in them. A reach maybe, but it's a cleverly meaty and disturbing examination of reality inside of a horror film. 

The five college-age characters are intentionally played off as archetypes. There's the virgin, but will she be the Final Girl? And there's the token pothead, but is his head less reefer-clouded than his friends give him credit for? During the early getting-to-know-you scenes, they all have personalities. Instead of being faceless sacrificial lambs, they're a lot more interesting, likable, and memorable than the slasher-flick norm. These kids aren't that well-versed in the rules of horror movies like the ones in "Scream," but that's the point. All well-cast, the five fresh-faced thespians almost resemble the Mystery Inc. team from "Scooby-Doo!" Connolly is more than just the red-headed good girl; her Dana is intelligent and has some fight in her. If this really were "Scooby-Doo!," Marty would be Shaggy. With that squeaky voice and shaggy head of hair, Kranz (now on Broadway) comes away with the funniest wisecracks. As an amusing gag, Marty's large bong amusingly collapses into a travel coffee mug, which later comes in handy. New Zealand actress Hutchison is adorable and comely in daisy dukes as Jules, "the slut" who happens to be a pre-med major. In one deliciously tense and perverse moment during a game of Truth or Dare, Jules is dared to make out with a stuffed wolf head, and Hutchison really goes for it. Going on to star in 2011's "Thor," Hemsworth makes a mark here as Curt, "the jock" who's on a full academic scholarship. Williams also acquits himself well as the hunky but bookish and decent friend Holden, who in this equation might be Scooby. The actor gets to sell a cute bit involving a two-way mirror. In overseeing roles that can't specifically be divulged, Jenkins and Whitford perfectly essay the writers' dialogue into a rat-a-tat rhythm of comic banter tinged with gallows humor. For Whitford, a running joke involving a "merman" hilariously comes full circle. 

Conventions and dried-out clichés are turned on their head, and our expectations are subverted many times over. The "you-will-die" harbinger, "the wind" supposedly throwing open a cellar door, and choices of having sex in the woods and then later splitting up the group are all played with a wink and given a tweak. While still keeping the Easter Eggs under wraps in review, there are great visual cues to Japanese horror, H.P. Lovecraft's works, as well as "Hellraiser," and an unexpected cameo from _________ ______ as "The Director" comes with a chuckle. Down to the tiniest detail, there's even a sly nod to those '80s anti-drug PSAs with the utterance of "I learned it from watching you!" If you haven't already figured, this is buckets of fun that returns to the roots of "fun horror" like a gushing love letter wrapped in a big, blood-red bow. It shouldn't be difficult to realize which traditions are being manipulated and reset, but if you're in the know and in on the joke, the experience will hold more joy, excitement, and reward. Like a pair of cool chaperones, Goddard and Whedon make sure we're always having a good time. There's not a glitch in the twisty, intricate structure and pacing, swiftly cutting between the cabin and the lab, and the surprises just keep getting thrown our way. Now drop everything you're doing and run, don't walk, to "The Cabin in the Woods," but afterwards, don't let any of the cats out of the bag. It's one of a kind.

Grade:  A