Drew Goddard's giddily brilliant The Cabin in the Woods has a lot on its twisted mind, but throughout 105 minutes of reveals, reversals and reappropriations, it's consistently haunted by one prevailing question above all others: Do we tell scary stories in order to create our monsters, or do we tell scary stories in order to contain them? Such are the type of questions at the heart of this self-aware slasher, which elegantly transcends the smug genre commentary of the Scream films, eventually revealing itself to be the goriest essay film ever made (F For Fatal). In a knowingly generic set-up, four sexy co-eds and a stoner tagalong head off to a creepy cabin in the woods (hey!) for a weekend of truth or dare—dismemberment ensues. But from the wryly cryptic opening sequence it's clear that Goddard (working from a script co-written by Joss Whedon) intends to weaponize our expectations against us, a feat he accomplishes with nuanced performances, immaculate production design and a sly sense of scale that suggests the world itself is at stake. The Cabin in the Woods should draw the usual horror crowds, but its heady premise might make it a surprisingly tough sell. Nevertheless, strong reviews and a leading turn from Chris "Thor" Hemsworth should help LionsGate to a decent haul, and a long life in the ancillary markets is all but guaranteed for this bloody crowd-pleaser.
Almost as if the film's making up for lost time after years of floating in studio limbo (the film was originally scheduled for a February 2010 release before MGM imploded), The Cabin in the Woods doesn't waste a second before it starts playing with its audience. Ridiculously grandiose opening titles—occult carvings scored to the sounds of an evil monk choir—give way to a Styrofoam coffee cup in an antiseptic office that could be anywhere (but probably isn't). By the time the title card is introduced with a jarring jump-scare a few beats later, it's already clear that this isn't a ride you've taken before.
We meet the usual gang of good-looking monster meat as they pack up for the weekend in the stick—and we're already primed to distrust their archetypes. It breaks down like this: Hemsworth is the jock and Anna Hutchinson (most recent film credit: Rotting Hill) is the oversexed blonde at his side. The meeker faction is comprised of Jesse Williams as the soft-spoken wildcard, Kristen Connolly as the mousy but resilient heroine and Fran Kranz as the wisecracking comic relief (Kranz steals the show, though to appreciate his work I still have to forcibly remind myself that The TV Set wasn't a documentary).
Both the title and the eponymous forest hovel it informs are obvious nods to stock horror experiences, and the roulette wheel manner by which the baddies are introduced confirms the film's interest in mechanics over minutia. Goddard's focus isn't on his victims so much as it is the experience of watching them—the script he penned for Matt Reeves' Cloverfield was similarly concerned with mediating between the audience and the fictions with which they were confronted. When Goddard begins to eviscerate his cast, he walks a fine line between wanting you to watch, and wanting you to knowingly engage in the act of watching—this pas-de-deux begins with the cabin's one-way mirrors, maintained by the film's returns to its sci-fi side-plot, and resolves with a naked declaration of intent that's so fun and brilliantly orchestrated that it hardly ever feels didactic. It's familiar territory, sure, but Goddard gives it new life by drenching it in death—where Scream and its ilk are content merely to acknowledge that there's a dialogue between horror films and their audience, The Cabin in the Woods actually endeavors to explore it, getting to the heart of why scary stories are one of the rare elements present in every culture the world over (one especially hilarious recurring bit pokes fun at the signature imagery of J-horror). Additionally, Goddard works to insure we never forget that the characters' pain brings us pleasure. The film's inspired third act dives deeper still, concluding that we need to revel in such bloodshed in order to placate our own demons, which are very real and always ready to rise up and destroy us.
Of course, none of this stuff would work if Goddard hadn't mastered the basics, and one of the reasons that The Cabin in the Woods is the best "slasher" film in ages is that it's also one of the scariest. The jolts and dread are all refined ideals of the form, and the chatter—sweet and snarky, as one would expect of anything bearing the Joss Whedon brand—is always there to remind you this isn't the usual schlock. The cast is up to the task (Dollhouse fans will feel right at home), with Kranz and Connolly doing outstanding work, and inspiring genuine affection even if they play characters the script insists are "stock."
Nevertheless, the movie gets so much right so often that such quibbles don't factor until long after the credits have rolled. The points Goddard raises are gleefully flattened by the joy he takes in making them, and whatever the film ultimately concludes about horror films—when they're as good as The Cabin in the Woods, you're just glad they exist.
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Chris Hemsworth, Brian J. White, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison
Director: Drew Goddard
Screenwriters: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Producer: Joss Whedon
Rating: R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity.
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: April 13, 2012