There is a sense of giddiness that pervades every frame of Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods--a feeling not only of someone getting away with something, but having an absolutely great time doing it. The picture, which Goddard co-wrote with producer Joss Whedon, is a gloriously daft horror-comedy in the truest sense of the phrase: it is both explosively funny and genuinely scary. And it is also hyper-knowing, a big meta-wink, but it doesn't make the mistake of some of the Scream movies (and their imitators), which use that self-awareness as a substitute for either wit or thrills. It makes you laugh and it makes you jump first. Then it serves as a surprisingly sly commentary on how we watch horror movies, and why--one so piercing and direct that it seemed, in some scenes, an outright jab at the braying idiots in the seats around me.
The film's trailers, it must be noted, promise nothing special; The Cabin in the Woods appears to be a fairly boilerplate teen horror movie, with generous helpings of Evil Dead, Cabin Fever, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre thrown in to the brew. The studio, Lionsgate, deserves some sort of "restraint in marketing" prize for keeping the movie's many twists and frames in its pants; if anything, their choice to market it as a horror movie you've seen a hundred times does a service to the larger schematics in play.
The early scenes follow the formula to the letter: a gang of stock characters (a sexpot, a jock, a brain, a stoner, and a good girl) load up the RV for a weekend at an isolated cabin, going off the map and GPS, ignoring the stern warnings of a crochety crackpot along the way. Once there, they explore the dusty old cabin, discovering a secret cellar in which previous owners appear to have collected every creepy artifact known to man. And then...
Well, this is where the writer must apply the brakes, synopsis-wise, not only to honor the requests of the publicists and filmmakers, but to keep from doing a disservice to those who will see the film, since observing the clever manner in which Goddard and Whedon slowly unsheathe their narrative is one of the most genuinely pleasurable experiences I've had at a recent film. I will say only these two things: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are the best screen comedy team in many a moon, and the picture's surprise co-star in its closing scenes sent up a roar of appreciation I've seldom heard among adult moviegoers.
The cast is impressive all around, really; like their writers, the actors--particularly Kristen Connolly as naïve Dana, Anna Hutchison as horny Jules, and Fran Kranz as the wry Marty--know that these are types, and have a good time kidding those types while still playing their moment-to-moment reality. (There are easier things than playing generic and specific simultaneously, so hats off there.) They were presumably cast as unknowns, but Chris Hemsworth went and became a Marvel hero during the film's seemingly endless post-production period. Originally slated for a 2009 release, it tumbled between studios (ever-ailing MGM sold it to Lionsgate), was held for a 3-D post-conversion that didn't come to pass (thankfully), and missed its seemingly ideal release date of last Halloween. A movie can't sit on the shelf for that long without accumulating some bad buzz, and there was plenty of speculation that Whedon and Goddard had a turkey on their hands. That speculation couldn't be further from the truth; The Cabin in the Woods is a dazzlingly audacious movie, sneakily rambunctious and endlessly entertaining. It leaves you with a big, dumb grin and a real sense of surprise--not that these guys cooked up a picture this ingenious, but that they actually got away with making it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.