The deceptively simple tagline for "The Cabin in the Woods" points to a movie with a lot to hide: "Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen."
Indeed, this Drew Goddard-directed effort, co-scripted by genre auteur Joss Whedon, ranks among one of the most wryly self-aware works of American pop culture entertainment in years. Relentlessly toying around with a meta story, "The Cabin in the Woods" is sometimes too clever for its own good. However, by successfully analyzing tired formulas, it gives them new life.
But not at first. "The Cabin in the Woods" begins with the aforementioned group of young pals heading to a countryside retreat for a weekend of hard partying and little else. Each one resembles a derivative horror archetype on loan: Levelheaded Dana (Kristen Connolly) joins couple Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) as well as stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) and bland football stud Holden (Jesse Williams), who presents Dana with her token romantic interest. There are hints in the opening minutes that this motley crew faces an ominous threat, but their goofy chemistry suggests the "Scooby-Doo" kids wandered onto a B-movie set.
The cliches continue: Shortly after they arrive at the titular setpiece, things look a little off, from the two-way mirror in one of the bedrooms to the creepy emblems in the basement caked with dust. During a rowdy game of truth or dare, Dana finds an diary in the cabin's shadowy subterranean lair and casually reads the Latin prose within, causing a rabid family of redneck zombies to rise from the ground and wreak deadly havoc on clueless gang. Can you say "The Evil Dead" rip-off?
Apparently, so can the filmmakers. Running parallel to these increasingly dire turn of events, a pair of droll lab technicians watch the entire proceedings unfold on a large screen from… elsewhere. Their location and purpose kept purposefully unclear, the two men (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) and their countless assistants maintain a tight grip on the proceedings, using remote devices to manipulate the cabin dwellers' conundrum.
This much we know from the start: The survivors exist in an apparent rat maze subject to the whims of their mysterious captors, whose headquarters resemble the backstage control hub of "The Truman Show." Constantly dissecting the onscreen action, they sound more like neurotic screenwriters than mad scientists. If you've ever watched a crappy movie and wondered "Who writes this shit?", look no further: It's these guys.
"If they don't transgress," says one when the teens fail to misbehave, "they can't be punished." Horror purists will rejoice at this nugget of gospel. Despite the puppet masters' genial manner, their elusive agenda eventually takes on an air of mischievousness. Even then, the scheming steals the show by satirizing the notion of pat storytelling methods by reducing them to office bureaucracy.
The rest of the cast — those wide-eyed, endlessly naive survivors — generally underwhelm. But, of course, that's exactly the point. Stumbling through each scene in a cloud of smoke, the squinty-eyed Marty delivers each moment of comic relief directly on cue, and emerges as the only one batty enough to theorize about their situation. (By getting high, he sees the high concept… get it? If that's not an intentional pun, it should be.) Connolly has little to offer beyond the batting of her eyes in terror and the occasional blood-curdling scream, but somebody had to do it. Like the cabin, she's hardly more than a prop.
All's well that ends well and "The Cabin in the Woods" nearly gets there, arriving at a madcap finale in which the id of genre excess explodes in glorious detail. But once "Cabin in the Woods" arrives at the big tell-all moment, it immediately becomes a lesser movie. The fun factor trumps its greater intentions and makes it hard to praise without the one thing it lacks — namely, restraint. When it finally ends, "Cabin in the Woods" never shakes the sense that it's a deeply ridiculous parody of itself, and so its own worst critic.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Shelved for years in the wake of MGM's financial difficulties, "Cabin in the Woods" is finally seeing the light of day as the opening night film at the SXSW Film Festival. That genre-savvy crowd will eat it up, but the lack of A-list stars (aside from Whedon's screenwriting credit and Hemsworth, who's not a major character) and the extremely secretive plot details make it a tough one to market for mainstream audiences. It may get lucky with a solid opening weekend at the box office but probably won't gain much ground beyond that. It opens April 13.