Much of the pre-release hype on meta-horror movie The Cabin in the Woods has focused on the element of surprise, though the movie pretty much "spoils" itself in its opening minutes. But that doesn't make the flick any less than a horror geek's wet dream.
As written by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers), The Cabin in the Woods is a next-generation Scream, a self-referential horror film that tongue-in-cheekily deconstructs its own genre. On that level, it's a certified hoot. If this film isn't quite as fun or as scary as Scream, it is certainly more audacious, and that creative energy is undoubtedly the film's chief selling point.
The action takes place largely in the titular done-to-death setting, but the film begins in a top-secret facility manned by middle-aged men in shirt sleeves and dark ties (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). And the film will spend a majority of its run time in that facility, whose purpose is strongly implied by the opening title sequence.
At that cabin in the woods, in a spot "not even worthy of global positioning," an archetypally familiar crop of college students is ripe for the reaping: a "jock" (Chris "Thor" Hemsworth), a "brain" (Jesse Williams), a "slut" (Anna Hutchison), a "stoner" (Fran Kranz) and a "virgin" (Kristen Connolly). Each is more than meets the eye, as is the deathtrap they more or less innocently stumble into, so part of the story's appeal is figuring out how and why the pieces fit together.
Perhaps one of those pieces has to be pounded into place (some talk about the victims choosing their own poison fails to cohere, and if that's the intention, it could be clarified), but Goddard and Whedon do play around here not only with genre archetypes ("monsters, magic, gods...") but with notions about the meaning of horror cinema, which intersects with the roots of ancient tragedic drama. Whedon's signature wit enhances the brainteasing effect; as Whitford's character says in passing, "I'll see it when I believe it."
With the help of crack cinematographer Peter Deming (Scream), Goddard directs this ambitious sci-fi/horror hybrid with authority, and the duo orchestrate some potent visual jokes as well. One involves a slaying that's ignored by foreground characters as it plays out in the background (a trope we also saw in Scream); another hilariously spoofs J-horror (Japanese horror films like The Ring).
Horror cinema has a tendency to indict the audience, and drawing attention to that is not a new idea, but The Cabin the Woods does present a fresh narrative twist on it, and it intriguingly forces the audience to wonder if they should be rooting for the slayed or the slayers.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]