Don't watch the trailer, don't ask your friends, and above all else, don't read about it online. (Except, um, here.) The Cabin in the Woods is a movie to be seen without the faintest idea of what it's about. Think Evil Dead meets Scream, magnified 10-times over in a movie so steeped in horror that it repurposes clichés into delightful critiques about our expectations of the genre.
Here's the premise, at least as much as it can be without spoiling anything: There is a cabin in the woods, and it's a vacation spot for a group of attractive college students headed for boozing, sex and good times. Each one is a wink: the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slut (Anna Hutchison), the stoner (Fran Kranz), the bookish guy (Jesse Williams), and the good girl (Kristen Connolly). Of course, they run into a creepy local who warns them to turn around, and of course, they ignore him. But soon after they settle down in the cabin – and find all sorts of creepy, Hieronymus Bosch-style torture paintings inside – all hell breaks loose into a much broader, nutso plot that's just as funny as it is frightening.
Cabin in the Woods
Without giving it away, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins show up as [REDACTED], the kids find [REDACTED], everything erupts into a bloody [REDACTED] in [REDACTED] that leads to [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and a [REDACTED] impaling a [REDACTED]. (Trust me, you'll understand.)
Here's one thing that won't surprise, though: Joss Whedon is the guy pulling the strings behind the scenes. The nerd king of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse has made a career out of upending formulas and riffing on motifs to make even the most jaded of his fans squeal with glee. With Cabin, his clever eye turns toward the underlying questions of horror. Where do our monsters come from? Why do the same things always happen? Why don't we do better?
Cabin works so well because Whedon and his partner-in-crime Drew Goddard rail against convention by wrapping themselves in it. They pick apart the genre from the inside out, mining to find the best, most exhilarating elements. You'll recognize bits from slashers, supernatural thrillers, voyeuristic nerve-wrackers, and anything and everything in between. Cabin isn't Whedon and Goddard's love letter to horror -- it's their wish list.
It's easy to see why they made this movie: Horror is very stale, and obviously has been for some time. Cabin isn't a cure-all to what ails – for that, there'd need to be an overhaul of Hollywood's entire approach to the genre – but it's a huge step toward acknowledging that these movies need more than cheap scares. Whedon and Goddard are proving that filmmakers can make something that's smart and scary, self-aware and compelling. (And that's without even mentioning Cabin's impressive wit and sense of timing.)
There's always a fear that self-referential movies will aim too high, alienating the broader audience while feeding into smug cultural critiques. Let's call it the I Heart Huckabees conundrum: It's difficult to make a good movie, but it's even more difficult to make a good movie about movies. Whedon and Goddard solve the whole problem by doing it all -- Cabin is both great horror and great commentary about horror. The message and the movie are one in the same.
None of that matters when you're watching, though. You'll be too busy laughing, then cringing, then cracking up all over again. And ultimately, that's why The Cabin in the Woods is so brilliant – you don't know what to expect, and you don't know how you'll react, but in the moment, that's why it's so much fun.