Writing about The Cabin in the Woods is tricky. Much of the fun in watching the new horror film from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon comes from the way it slowly and slyly unveils its secrets. Marketing taglines like “You think you know the story” and “Discover the secret” have played up the mystery elements of the film, and despite languishing on the shelf for three years as blowback from MGM’s financial troubles (the film was eventually rescued by Lionsgate), the filmmakers have still managed to keep the plot twists safely unspoiled. So, you’ll forgive us for dutifully keeping this review vague.
What can be revealed is this: The Cabin in the Woods tells the story of five young friends, including a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth and Dollhouse‘s Fran Kranz, who decide to stay in the titular cabin for a weekend of drinking, smoking weed, and premarital sex. But their vacation takes a horrific turn when they’re besieged upon by a deadly supernatural threat. If none of this sounds groundbreaking, it’s because it’s not supposed to. The cabin premise has been done to death in every horror film from Evil Dead to Dead Snow, but the familiar setup is just the starting point for a delightfully clever examination of the genre that’s at once parody and unrelenting scarefest.
That co-writer Joss Whedon would come up with a winking, post-modern examination of horror is hardly a surprise. The cult auteur retooled the genre in his TV classics Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of which used laughs to comment on scares and vice versa. (Goddard also wrote several episodes of both series.) Those elements are present here too, with witty dialog and fanboyish nods to horror classics abruptly giving way to genuine suspense and gravity.
The Cabin in the Woods will receive plenty of attention for its “twists,” but that word doesn’t quite fit. These aren’t M. Night Shyamalan-style curveballs that come out of nowhere — Cabin‘s turns are more like the slow parting of a curtain, daring you to figure out what’s really on the stage. The events may be unpredictable, but you’re let in on the fact that things aren’t as they seem from the beginning, thanks to repeated cutaways to a trio of technicians (played by The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford, Six Feet Under‘s Richard Jenkins, and Angel‘s Amy Acker) who are preparing the launch of what they refer to only as “the scenario.”
That scenario enables Whedon and Goddard to wink their way through the motions of a typical slasher film, all while teasing hints at what’s really going on. But once the scenario goes awry, the film really gets to cut loose, expanding its scope and incorporating elements from various other movies into one unforgettable final act. By the end, Whedon and Goddard have pulled off an amazing feat: They have changed the way you view the events not just of this film, but of every scary movie you’ve ever seen. That’s what makes The Cabin in the Woods one of the best horror films of the last decade — it’s a brilliant and frightening ride that turns the genre on its severed head.
The Cabin in the Woods opens nationwide on Friday, April 13.