Smart horror–is that an oxymoron? Not in “The Cabin in the Woods,” a devilishly-twisted film written by Joss Whedon, maker of beloved TV series “Buffy” and “Firefly.” Whedon starts with a generic plot premise that has been hackneyed to death: youth in the woods, getting feisty inside and out a cabin, and then getting killed.
Luckily, Whedon torques this premise and pushes into unfamiliar territory; the first sequence involves a bunch of bureaucrats speaking office chitchat, with occasional references to ‘scenarios.’ The viewer is intentionally confused, and this plot knot serves the film well by keeping the audience on its toes, wondering how the office space world connects to the eponymous cabin in the woods.
“Cabin in the Woods” acts smart by introducing a layer of story that most horror flicks don’t have. Sure, there are twists in films like “Saw,” or the “Ring,” but for the most part these conform to general rules that are developed in the plot. For example, the fact that “Jigsaw” was in the room all along wasn’t subverting any of the main themes of gory punishment and torture in “Saw” so much as adding a titillating surprise. Smart, of course, does not equal enjoyable; an explicit critique of horror tropes is fine for the internet, but God save us from having to watch that on screen. Rest assured: “Cabin in the Woods” succeeds in being both smart and fun.
The fact that the cast manages the admirable feat of being memorable for a lineup of stereotypes is the cherry on this bloody cake. Yes, we have the disposable hottie (played by a perky Anna Hutchison); heroine Dana (Kristen Connolly); hunk-athlete 1 (Thor, a.k.a. Chris Hemsworth); hunk-“scholar” 2 (Jessie Williams); and a comic-relief pothead (Fran Kranz, who really pulls off his paranoid stoner act and spouts a steady stream of wry one-liners). The bureaucrats, whoever they are, also turn in credible performances, with Bradley Whitford as a highlight.
The script also keeps things witty and surprisingly funny. When Dana insists on reading the ominous Latin phrase in a diary found in the basement of the cabin, the pothead has the moment of clarity we’ve all wished for in horror movies, urging her not to read the Latin. And then there are (minor spoiler alert) the hilarious bits where Japanese ghost-horror clichés are skewered.
One reservation I had about “Cabin in the Woods” is that ultimately it doesn’t feel as much like a horror movie as a meta-take on the horror genre. Don’t get me wrong, Whedon and director Drew Goddard have their moments of suspense, and even more moments of gore. But the kind of gripping, cathartic dread that makes a horror movie horrifying here gets lost in the constant shuffle of plot twists that Whedon throws our way.
As a result, “Cabin” functions and succeeds as a homage to a genre rather than a pinnacle of the genre itself. For those who might feel let down by this, you should know that “Cabin” cameos an evil merman (in addition to the psycho undead hick cultists that we may be more familiar with).