Genre dissections like The Cabin in the Woods are risky ventures. When filmmakers are clearly intent on both telling a story and offering a self-reflexive statement, there’s a significant chance that one impulse could overwhelm the other. The possible results — an ineffectual drama or a suffocating, pretentious satire — are not pleasant.

So it’s fortunate that Cabin director/co-writer Drew Goddard, working closely with producer/fellow writer Joss Whedon, manages the tricky balancing act. His long-awaited horror movie, which has sat on the shelf for more than two years thanks to upheaval at original distributor MGM, is smart and fun, packing unexpected surprises while cleverly recalibrating genre expectations.

The film’s about a group of five archetypal college friends — among them the jock figure (Chris Hemsworth), the stoner (Fran Kranz) and the “virgin” (Kristen Connolly) — who head to an isolated cabin for the proverbial weekend getaway. Naturally, something goes terribly wrong while they’re there, but it’s surely not what you think.

The best way to go into the picture is without knowing more than that. Suffice it to say, then, that this is hardly your everyday wooden cabin. The prominent presences of government agent types throughout the film, as well as office drones played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, make that clear. Meticulously, cleverly, Goddard unpacks the mystery, offering one transfixing clue at a time.

The movie offers a compelling journey through demented territory, smartly dredging up and then subverting the most common horror movie conventions. Our notions of villainy and heroism are jumbled and called into question, as the filmmakers thwart deeply-held perceptions of the genre’s basic moral structure. At the same time, in a move that would make any number of film theorists proud, the movie directly engages with the questions
of how and why we watch horror flicks.

Most importantly, though, The Cabin in the Woods is a tremendous entertainment. The slick visual scheme is filled with ominous imagery, slyly distorted perspectives and an appealingly dark sense of humor. The actors are game, indulging in the requisite conventions without succumbing to them. An old premise is freshened up in countless memorable ways, with the new and wholly unexpected plot developments flying at the perfect clip.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Goddard and Whedon have unlocked a way to make some of the most tired genre storytelling clichés seem new again. Amazingly, they’ve created a thought provoking eye-opener out of the wheezy abandoned cabin conceit. With Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost among their respective credits, the men are no strangers to groundbreaking enterprises. They’ve created another one here.

The Upside: The film offers an innovative outwitting of horror movie clichés. It’s great fun.

The Downside: In the realm of groundbreaking, earth-shattering movies, it’s not exactly The Matrix.

On the Side: By now, everyone knows that Joss Whedon’s next movie is The Avengers, out May 4, but after that he’s shifting gears in a big way. An adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is next in the Whedon directorial pipeline.


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