Almost no genre (bar perhaps the romantic-comedy) revolves around formula as heavily as the horror film. Obviously there are sub-categories: the haunted-house film, the zombie flick, the vampire movie. But a disproportionate amount of them involves a group of horny teens going to a remote location, taking off clothes, making stupid decisions, and getting picked off one by one, whether by a man in a mask, or by some kind of supernatural creature or force. So on hearing the title, and indeed basic premise, of "The Cabin In The Woods," it's hard not to be a little downhearted. Is this the same old cheapo horror flick we've seen dozens, if not hundreds of times?
But you should not be worried. Because in the hands of co-writer/producer Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" (and director of this summer's "The Avengers"), and debut director Drew Goddard, who penned "Cloverfield," "The Cabin In The Woods" is something very different: a neat subversion and celebration of its genre that delivers a fistful of scares, along with things less common to the genre: smarts, laughs and an awful lot of surprises. What "Scream" did for "Halloween" fifteen years ago, Whedon and Goddard do for… well, pretty much every horror movie that isn't "Halloween."
Those who've seen trailers and TV spots may be a little thrown by the opening, which follows two middle aged men (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) through an office environment. It's a high-tech environment, to be sure, and there's ominous tones from their conversation with underling Wendy (Amy Acker), but this could basically be the set up for an office-bound comedy.
Soon enough we're with our teen heroes: Dana (Kristen Connolly), recently dumped by her professor/boyfriend, her best pal, the sexed-up Jules (Anna Hutchinson), her boyfriend, the jockish, but bright Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his buddy, the sensitive Holden (Jesse Williams) and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz). They're heading off in an RV to stay at Curt's cousin's cabin for a weekend of debauchery, and in the hope that Dana and Holden might get together. After passing the obligatory redneck who passes on dire warning, they're at the creepy cabin, but Jenkins and Whitford have plans for them that may mean they'll never leave it.
Forgive us for being a little oblique: "The Cabin in the Woods" is one of those pictures that's best seen as cold as possible. The trailers have already hinted at some of the surprises in store (if you haven't seen them, try not to), but they've mostly kept under wraps the ingenuity of the central conceit, and the joyous surprises of the third act. And that's how it should be.
Which is not to say that the early stages are unappealing. Whedon and Goddard (who wrote for "Buffy" and "Angel" back in the day) keep their characters just the right side of archetypes, and their cast (seemingly college-aged, but in true genre fashion, mostly looking closer to thirty) are winning. The dialogue zips in true Whedon fashion, and there's a nicely handled sense of looming menace.
But once they hit the cabin, every convention of the genre, from the pervy one-way mirror to the creepy basement, is set up, but often turned on its head, or cannily explained, in part thanks to cutaways to Whitford and Jenkins and their cohorts. And with the set-up done, things get crazy, and then crazier, and then craziest, the writer/director combo widening the scope, and upping the stakes, further than you'd have thought possible. From about thirty minutes in, the film is a blast, the most fun we've had in theaters in a long while.
And Goddard keeps things flying along, with some genuinely impressive effects work, given the low-budget (although we guess that, with a release date delayed almost two years thanks to MGM's financial difficulties, they've had time to get it right). The creature designs are creative and iconic, bound to feature on geek shelves for years to come, and the last act is bound to become a Blu-Ray freeze-frame favorite: there's so much going on that you're bound to miss stuff first time around (particularly if, like us, you're an ophiophobe, and watched much of it through your fingers).
All this is not to say there are not problems. While Goddard mostly does a solid job (and should find himself on studio wish-lists down the line), he falls down in a few moments; one key scene in particular is handled so abruptly that you're barely aware what's happened until afterwards. There's a surprise cameo near the end that was unfortunately trumped by the same actress turning up in a virtually identical role in another film last year. And while most of the cast is solid (Jenkins and Whitford typically superb in stand-out roles), Kranz is rather mannered and irritating as the stoner archetype, although less so as time goes on.
Whether the film is able to connect with a wider audience remains to be seen: the target audience is clearly horror geeks with a clear knowledge of the genre and its cliches. But if you are one of those people, then you'll probably not enjoy a movie more this year. And even if you're not (like ourselves), we'd wager you'll still have a blast. [B+]
"Cabin in the Woods" opened the SXSW Film Festival tonight, and will hit theaters on April 13th.