Not since “Scream” has a horror movie subverted the expectations that accompany the genre to such wicked effect as “The Cabin in the Woods,” a sly, self-conscious twist on one of slasher films’ ugliest stepchildren: the coed campsite massacre. The less auds know going in, the more satisfying the payoff will be for this long-delayed, much-anticipated shocker, which was caught in limbo for more than two years during MGM’s bankruptcy. Finally surfacing as the opening-night selection of SXSW after sneaking last December at the Austin-based Butt-Numb-A-Thon, this Lionsgate release should cause something of a sensation when it opens April 13.
Given the provenance of the project, which was co-written by Joss Whedon and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” collaborator Drew Goddard, it’s no wonder the film has assumed near-mythic status in the imaginations of fear-friendly fanboys. Designed as a response to the recent torture-porn strain of horror cinema, “Cabin” feels less like the final nail in that trend’s coffin than the start of something new: a smarter, more self-aware kind of chiller that still delivers the scares.
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Five college kids pile into an RV and head out to a cabin deep in “Deliverance” country. There’s Holden (Jesse Williams), the nerdy black guy; Jules (Anna Hutchison), the easy sorority gal; Marty (Fran Kranz), the pothead philosopher; and Curt, the Alpha-male football jock, played by Chris Hemsworth, whose star has risen since the film was shot, thanks to “Thor.” After good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly) reads an ominous passage from a tattered diary, genre aficionados should have a pretty good idea what kind of fate awaits them — death by redneck zombies — and can probably even predict the order in which these stock characters will die. Though the script plays tricks with the various stereotypes, the actors themselves seem even less interesting than your typical dead-meat ensemble, making it tough to care much about their fate — a non-problem, since Whedon and Goddard have bigger aims.
From the outset, the script hints that there’s more going on than just another anemic zombie-redneck-torture yarn, starting with an opening conversation between two stiff rocket-scientist types (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) shop-talking about America’s position in some sort of global arms race. Somehow, these two desk jockeys are controlling what happens in the woods, working gears and levers to manipulate the horror movie that follows. Yet while this opener would seem to spoil the surprise, tantamount to beginning “The Wizard of Oz” with a shot behind the curtain, the mind reels at how these guys fit into the genre exercise at hand, and it would take a mad genius to guess just how screwy things are gonna get once the film kicks in.
What makes the experience so terrifying isn’t the sudden, blood-chilling stings on the soundtrack or the slow, nail-biting shots of ghouls creeping up on characters from behind. Instead, the petrifyingly unpredictable script flips the rules. Since anything can happen, witnessing it becomes an act of bravery, like feeling your way down a pitch-black alley; there’s no telling what might be lurking in the dark.
“The Cabin in the Woods” preys on moviegoers’ worst nightmares, and then, when the big reveal comes, it has the nerve to give them a face. It ruins nothing to say a hungry, angry and very real monster lurks at the end of this film. Intellectually speaking, the demon in question could just as well be a manifestation of auds’ appetite for carnage: It feeds on the blood of bad stereotypes, the same way horror fans seem to, and Jenkins and Whitford — who play their droll puppet-master roles with hilarious all-in-a-day’s-work ambivalence — serve to orchestrate what the masses most want to see.
With plot holes aplenty, fanatics can pick the film apart if they please. For starters, the setting only makes sense for a couple of the scenarios at hand. But the idea is so ambitious and fresh, most will gladly play along. If the execution brings any regrets, it’s that first-time director Goddard (who co-wrote “Cloverfield”) seems somewhat outmatched by the considerable demands of his own high concept. Given all the film gets right, there’s no question this is one of the most exciting feature debuts of the last few years, but it’s a shame Whedon (who directed the second unit) or someone more polished wasn’t there to make the cabin, the woods and the cardboard characters as entertaining as the mind-warping secret that lies beneath.