In director Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods,” five stereotypical college students — a strapping jock, blond cheerleader, reserved intellectual, virginal girl, and a wise-cracking pothead — take an RV to a remote cabin for a vacation, but all is not as it seems.
If you rolled your eyes at that description, or even drooled a little, that’s fair; the “cabin o’ horrors” is perhaps the most oft-abused cliche within an already formulaic genre. It’s a good thing, then, that Goddard and Joss Whedon, who produced and co-wrote the film, are acutely aware of this. “The Cabin in the Woods” is a wittier, sexier “Scream,” perfect for those who would rather see the film skewer the horror movie formula than watch the characters get hacked to pieces. It’s a satire, and a great one at that.
Yet there’s a splash of intensity that separates this film from crappy spoofs like “Scary Movie.” This isn’t Whedon and Goddard’s first time at the rodeo of self-mocking pulp; the two collaborated on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a series that seemed to know exactly when to be serious and when to own up to its campiness. The snappy and frequently self-deprecating writing that made “Buffy” great is preserved picture-perfectly in this new collaboration.
And unlike so many spoof films, “The Cabin in the Woods” has a coherent storyline. Whedon and Goddard’s inspired plot device makes mincemeat of the horror genre with a proficiency that puts the horror-movie-buff-turned-serial-killer gimmick in “Scream” to shame.
This device isn’t fully revealed until the last few minutes. From the opening credits, it’s clear something is amiss, but it’s difficult to put your finger on what it is. Who are these middle-aged pencil pushers (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in short-sleeved button-ups? Where are the sexy coeds and red solo cups? The film perpetually hints, but never divulges too much. Goddard and Whedon give the viewers just enough information to stay curious as the plot twists and turns.
These two clerical types are, in fact, part of an organization of puppet masters. They are controlling the whole vacation remotely — the cabin, the five stereotypes, and the legion of evil waiting for them. Revealing the intentions of these men behind the curtain would spoil the ending, so let’s just say “legion of evil” is not an exaggeration.
There are foes aplenty, but “The Cabin in the Woods” doesn’t balance absurdity and terror as well as it could. Sam Raimi’s better films, like “The Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell,” do it better; even “Shaun of the Dead” is grittier than this movie.
Thankfully, “The Cabin in the Woods” is funnier. To illustrate: When the jock (Chris Hemsworth) and the cheerleader (Anna Hutchison) abscond into the woods to get it on, the girl complains about being cold, saying she wants to go in. Immediately, the geeky observers raise the temperature and turn up the moonlight as if it were mood lighting. When it seems like the quintessential horror-film boob shot still might not happen, they deploy “pheromone mists.”
There are dozens of moments like this; Goddard and Whedon know every horror cliche, but instead of trying to side-step the pitfalls, they throw the film into each one deliberately and turn them to their advantage.
Reach reporter Joseph Sutton-Holcomb at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @analogmelon
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