The less you know about “The Cabin in the Woods,” the better. Even if that means you have to stop reading this review right now. However, if you are a curious soul and plan on forging ahead, you can rest assured I don’t plan on spoiling anything that isn’t already evident in the previews.
The set up here should be excruciatingly familiar. A group of five friends are invited to spend their vacation at a spooky old cabin out in the remote woods. Along the way they meet an ominous toothless yokel who taunts them about their inevitable fate.
Every action is being monitored by an underground team of technicians. From the safety of their research lab they control the variables of the environment, playing out the standard beats of a cheesy slasher film, luring the lead characters towards their cliched doom. But for what reason remains a mystery that slowly unravels over the course of the story.
The acting elevates the film beyond its metafictional appeal. The vaguely twenty-something college students are portrayed with a bit more depth and intelligence than most horror fodder. For example, the character Curt (Chris Hemsworth) is the jock of the group, but also one of the smartest. None of them fit neatly into their stereotypical roles, and it gives the audience something to cling to and root for.
Meanwhile, the lead technicians are played by veteran character actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. The film often cuts back to these characters as they plan out the deaths of strangers in an eerily white-collar fashion. In lesser hands these roles would have felt awkward. These two have an impeccable chemistry that straddles the fine line between hilarious and sinister.
The film is directed by “Cloverfield” screenwriter Drew Goddard from a script by Joss Whedon, creator of the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the short-lived “Firefly.” The writing, particularly the snappy dialogue and irreverent humor, absolutely reeks of Whedon’s signature style. It’s harder to judge Goddard’s exact influence, since this is his directorial debut. But the film has strong visuals, with many key shots that will drive the audience wild.
Both of the creators have obviously done their homework. “The Cabin in the Woods” displays an uncanny understanding of the mechanics of horror narratives, and it takes a perverse joy in dissecting them in front of you. Even if the subversion goes over your head, the story also manages work by itself. It’s structured in layers, with multiple payoffs and satisfying reveals.
What Whedon and Goddard have created here goes far beyond a simple spoof or critique. It simultaneously deconstructs and reconstructs the horror genre, subverts its tropes, rearranges its core structure into what Whedon calls a “loving hate letter,” before finally leveling the playing-field like a heat-seeking missile. It’s a delirious and razor-sharp thrill ride that smashes off the rails and dares to go where few have dared to venture.