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.