Film Review: The Cabin in the Woods

A dazzling blend of scary movie clichés and self-referential callouts subverted by a mind-warping twist that co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard roll out slowly from the beginning rather than saving for a conventional 11th-hour gotcha!

It starts as these things always do: Five college kids depart for an impromptu weekend getaway at a cabin somewhere deep in the back of beyond where they can drink, screw around and spook each other by exploring the scary basement. The stereotypical slasher-movie victims-to-be are all present and accounted for: Alpha couple Jules and Holden (Anna Hutchison and Chris Hemsworth), whose cousin owns the cabin, comic-relief stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), Jules' good-girl BF Dana (Kristen Connolly) and nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), who's there because Jules thinks Dana really, really needs to spend less time in study hall and more in the sack. It's a long drive, and the creepy local they had to ask for directions is, well, creepy, but the kids don't let it harsh their buzz: Once they've settled in, gotten over the cabin's weird vibe—what's up with that hidden one-way mirror between two of the bedrooms?—and started getting hammered, the long weekend starts shaping up nicely.

So hey, this looks like a good time to see what's in the aforementioned scary basement… Wow, it's a treasure trove of dusty, spooky stuff, like the old diary to which bookish Dana inevitably gravitates. Written by 12-year-old pioneer girl Patience Buckner, it’s just chock-full of weird references to sex rituals and dark secrets—there's even a spell, which Dana incautiously reads aloud. Uh-oh…Our happy campers don't know it yet, but the whole zombified Buckner family is clawing its way out of the ground. So far, so Evil Dead. Except…and it's a doozy of an "except."

This is where the hints scattered throughout act one—the bird zapped by some kind of invisible force field, the phone call Mr. Creepy Local's made as soon as he'd sent the kids on their way, those shots of two middle-aged science-guy types (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) puttering around what appears to be a high-tech surveillance center—come together. It wasn't monumental bad luck that the nubile young folks stumbled into a supernatural backwoods nightmare. They were somehow selected and sent there, and science guys Hadley and Sitterson are running a giant control panel that directs the action according to what they do whenever there's a choice to be made. And there's more: The same scenario is playing out simultaneously all over the world—kind of like a global Hunger Games, except that they're only broadcast to a network of command centers like this one. Why? You'll find out eventually and it's worth the wait.

In the meantime, the college kids start getting picked off in gruesome ways (if you know your horror tropes, you can call the order); no matter how hard or ingeniously they try to escape, they're always thwarted—cut to Sitterson and Hadley, pulling the high-tech strings! As they fight for their lives, the command center is filling up with sundry underlings and starting to look like some hellish office party, complete with a “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” pool.

Whedon and first-time director Goddard (a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” veteran and co-writer of the much-maligned Cloverfield) are über-horror geeks, but you don't have to be steeped in genre lore to enjoy the hell out of The Cabin in the Woods. It's not a spoof or a parody or a witless series of juvenile riffs a la the Scary Movie franchise: It's both genuinely funny and genuinely scary, and if you think that can't be so hard to pull off, try making of list of movies that do. Shaun of the Dead, Scream, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling…not so easy, right?

Cabin is packed with intricately embedded allusions to everything from H.P. Lovecraft's Chthulu Mythos to Japanese schoolgirl horror (keep your eyes on the widescreen TVs in the background; the scenario that pits a classroom full of cute-as-a-bug fourth-graders against a soul-sucking demon is priceless), but the narrative always comes first and it builds inexorably to an astonishing climax (which features an actress whose iconic stature makes her unheralded appearance a double delight) as unexpected as it is perfectly set up.