The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard’s splashy horror comedy The Cabin In The Woods expertly plays with audience expectations in a sly, cynically self-aware take on the slasher film. Not since Wes Craven’s Scream back in 1996 has a horror movie so cleverly subverted the genre with such devious wit, taking the bare bones of the clichéd camp-side teen massacre and spinning it into something deliciously dark and wildly entertaining.

The less the audience knows about the film beforehand, the more satisfying the payoff will be for a film where the merest suggestion of the workings of the simple plot might be considered a spoiler. Co-written by producer Joss Whedon and his Buffy the Vampire Slayer collaborator Drew Goddard (making his directorial debut), The Cabin in the Woods works as a gleeful rejoinder to the recent rash of rapidly uninteresting torture-porn horror films, delicately balancing the genre’s requirements for buckets of blood with a newly minted, and deviously uncomplicated, back-story that re-examines the ancient stories and myths that were the progenitors of what we find terrifying today.

The opening sequences set the stage with commendable efficiency. Five college students pile into a truck and head out to a remote woodland cabin, borrowed from a friend of a friend, for a long weekend. All five fit easily into broad character types, for a reason. There’s the athletic Alpha-male (Chris Hemsworth), the brave and brainy black guy (Jesse Williams), the blonde cheerleader (Anna Hutchison), the befuddled pot-head philosopher (Fran Kranz) and the wholesome, virginal good-girl (Kristen Connolly). Having arrived at their destination, despite dire warnings of doom from a scrofular stranger they meet on the way, the five set are soon exploring the cabin’s creepy basement. There, as decades of cinematic instruction have left the audience in no doubt, a greasy death awaits.

And that’s about all I can tell you. Although Whedon and Goddard’s script does find ways for their stock characters to surprise us, they are never developed into more than the sum of their standardised exteriors, making it difficult to care much about their fates. But that becomes much less of a problem when it becomes clear that the five imminent corpses are little more than pawns in a far greater game, as the story ingeniously enlarges. From an opening conversation between two seen-it-all scientist types (brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) to the glimpses of international atrocities glimpsed on television screens and similarly inspired by folklore, there are signs that the gory events are being manipulated from the shadows.

The thrill is all in discovering who, or what, is pulling the strings as the terrifyingly unpredictable story piles on the genre subversions and upends every stereotype in the book. The greatest trick The Cabin in the Woods plays is in somehow refreshing a genre that had become tediously stale and unambitious. Funny, creepy and delighted with the cleverness of its own irreverent conceit, it’s the most entertaining teen horror movie in years.

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