In the long, fabled history of stuck-in-the-boonies slasher flicks, there has never been, nor will there ever again be, another quite like "The Cabin in the Woods." To confine it to the horror genre, in fact, may be too constricting, in the same way that "Evil Dead 2" and "Men in Black" blended comedy with the occult and sci-fi, respectively. Rather, "Cabin" charts a bizarre, hilarious and, most of all, smart path toward one of the most exhilarating overall results of recent memory. Only rarely do big-budget productions so successfully stake out a patch of turf and defend it with this much aplomb.
There's not much else to be said without dropping a few light spoilers, so be warned. Five college-age friends load up an RV and head to the woods for a weekend of swimming, snogging and smoking up. A zippy bottle blonde named Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her side-of-beef boyfriend (Chris Hemsworth, of "Thor" fame) hope to hook up the good-girl Dana (Kristen Connolly) with the new-to-town nice guy (Jesse Williams), while stoner-jester Marty (Fran Kranz) operates as a Shaggy minus the Scooby. They have no way of guessing that their drive deep into the mountains to a dilapidated, eerie cabin is being monitored by functionaries spirited away in a concrete-walled high-tech bunker. (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are droll and delightful as two of the white-coated observers.) The reasons for this are not immediately clear, and to reveal them really would defang the surprises that lie in store. Suffice it that a certain degree of horror-carnage ensues, spliced with a ludicrous dark humor.
First-time director and "Lost" writer/producer Drew Goddard shares the writing credit with Joss Whedon, whose bona fides include the cinematic and television incarnations of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The best parts of "Cabin" draw amply from the spirit of those juggernauts — all the conspiratorial weirdness of "Lost," without the meandering, and the gory jollies of "Buffy." Throughout its breakneck 95 minutes, "Cabin" dares you to take it too seriously or too lightly. Mostly "Cabin" is precisely as weird as you want it. There's a certain three-word English-language phrase popularly abbreviated with the acronym WTF. By the time Marty exclaims it halfway through the movie, you will already have muttered it a dozen times yourself. It's that sort of ride.
By the end "Cabin" pulls an impressive double: It salts the earth against its own sequelization while making hash of vast swaths of scare-culture. That's no easy task, given that horror has become the most meta genre in cinema. Alas, audiences who attend horror films have become too savvy to be seduced any more; while there may be infinite ways to get a laugh out of someone, the vocabulary of fear is substantially shallower. The film industry has grappled with this in three ways: in-joke films ("Scream," etc.), gimmicks in perspective ("Blair Witch" and "Paranormal Activity" flicks) and torture-porn ("Saw" and its ilk) that double- and triple-down on the usual formula of darkness, sharp objects, sadism, claustrophobia and all the other basic elements of film-fright. The true genius of "Cabin" is that it co-opts and subverts the first two versions of that response while avoiding the cynicism of the third. The result is a genre-exploding film in a genre that already has sub-genres devoted to exploding the genre. The greatest risk in seeing it is that you may never look at horror the same way again.