The Cabin in the Woods is a fiendishly clever, constantly imaginative horror thriller that keeps springing new surprises on the audience right up until the end credits, but it also presents a large problem for any reviewer: how do you discuss a film that's built around a series of plot twists and reveals that radically reshape the movie you think you're watching, and that start with the very first scene? Make no mistake: you're better off going into The Cabin in the Woods knowing absolutely nothing, or even better, just thinking that it's another brain-dead horror flick during which you'll be yelling at the screen about how stupid the characters are.
Here's what we can safely reveal: The Cabin in the Woods does indeed center on five friends from college, each of whom appears, on the surface at least, to resemble one of the classic slasher-film archetypes. There's Curt (Chris Hemsworth), an athlete whose cousin has lent him a secluded cabin for a weekend getaway; Jules (Anna Hutchison), Curt's horny girlfriend who has just dyed her hair blonde; Dana (Kristen Connolly), a bookworm whom Curt admonishes for neglecting her social life in favor of her studies; Holden (Jesse Williams), the nice guy brought along as a romantic interest for Dana; and Marty (Fran Kranz), the requisite stoner and comic relief who is constantly paranoid that something bad is about to happen to all of them. The five pals arrive at the cabin and immediately begin to feel an ominous vibe, and when they explore the place's spooky, dimly basement, they find a number of strange artifacts. Seems pretty straightforward, but wait -- what's going on in the first scene of the movie, which seems to be set in some sort of corporate office? And why are two office drones (played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) talking about how sites around the rest of the world have failed and it's up to them to succeed or else face dire consequences?
Giving away anything more would be unfair, but suffice it to say, The Cabin in the Woods seems at first glance to be setting up a run-of-the-mill Texas Chainsaw Massacre knockoff, only to reveal itself as a thorough deconstruction of horror movies that skewers the most ridiculous clichés of the genre, as well as some of its misogynistic undertones. It feels at times like co-writers Joss Whedon (a geek legend and wildly prolific artist best known for creating the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly) and Drew Goddard (a former writer for Buffy and Lost) drew up a checklist of every scene and character typically found in slasher films and proceeded to ask themselves, "How can we put a new spin on this?" Or maybe more accurately, "How can we make fun of this while still using it to scare people?"
The cast are all quite good, although special praise goes to Kranz for keeping his character from becoming annoying (never an easy task when you're playing the goofy stoner), as well as the pairing of Jenkins and Whitford for selling the humorous and mundane nature of their bizarre job. Co-scribe Goddard also directed the film, and while the picture isn't quite as atmospheric as, say, the Evil Dead movies (clearly a touchstone for The Cabin in the Woods), we should be grateful that a screenplay this smart wasn't ruined by a hack filmmaker overly reliant on jump cuts and shaky camerawork to sell the scares; Goddard knows how to put together scenes so that you can always tell who is where and what's going on (a pretty low bar that most of the directors put in charge of big-name horror franchises can't seem to clear), and while you can feel him straining against a relatively modest budget during the picture's absolutely insane climax, this is still one of the most promising directorial debuts in a long while.
From its disorienting opening to its unexpected twist ending, The Cabin in the Woods is a wild joyride that should appeal to both horror aficionados and those who find the whole genre witless and unbelievable. Perhaps more importantly, it's the shot of adrenaline that horror movies badly need after an endless parade of lackluster remakes and cheaply made found-footage spectacles; now that Goddard and Whedon have vivisected the slasher genre and exposed its inner workings, let's hope that this inspires some young turk to stop relying on the same old tropes and come up with the next big thing in horror filmmaking.