How does someone in my position discuss The Cabin in the Woods? It's a movie whose deliberately veiled marketing campaign insists critics tiptoe gingerly around the details. Other than redacting whole sentences or encircling this entire review with red Spoiler Alert caution tape, it's pretty much guaranteed I'm going to ruin something without even meaning to, so it's probably best to avert your eyes right now. Before you do, though, allow me to offer a painfully generic imperative: Go see this film. It's some of the craziest fun you'll have at the theater all year.
For those who've stuck around, let's begin by addressing the expectations of a movie titled The Cabin in the Woods. It's a good place to start, because the film is precisely about audience expectations. Indeed, half the picture takes place in a cabin, which is, in fact, located in the woods. Dark, foreboding, isolated woods. At this point, it probably wouldn't destroy your viewing experience if I told you that into these woods come five nubile college students, each one less an actual human being than a walking archetype: the hyper-sexualized bottle-blonde, the meathead alpha jock, the virginal brunette, the vaguely ethnic scholar, the paranoid burnout.
After watching dozens—if not hundreds—of movies with that exact setup, what would one anticipate such a motley group of friends to do while on a weekend getaway in the wilderness? Leap off a boat dock into a lake? Yep. Play truth-or-dare? Definitely. Go down into the cabin's dank, dimly lit basement, pick up a diary and read aloud the phrases written in Latin? Almost certainly. It shouldn't be surprising, then, to mention that early on, these kids stop at a rundown gas station and meet a grizzled old-timer who offers vague warnings about going up to that there cabin. Oh, and that hawk the camera lingers on as their RV rounds the final corner into assured doom? You just know that thing is about to fly into an invisible, honeycombed electrified fence running up the middle of a wide canyon and vaporize into nothingness.
Ah, shit. Maybe I should've left that last part out.
Well, now that I've crossed that line: Y'know how I said only half the movie takes place in the titular cabin? It's the other setting I really can't talk about without making you hate yourself for not stopping at the first paragraph. But it is in that other, wholly different sphere of The Cabin in the Woods that writer-producer Joss Whedon and first-time director Drew Goddard scramble horror clichés into something truly, wildly inventive. Meta-horror is, of course, nothing new; the genre is nothing if not in love with itself. But Whedon and Goddard, despite their backgrounds, don't seem particularly infatuated with the genre themselves. Cabin's sharply satirical edge will engender comparisons to Scream, but that franchise celebrated the conventions it gleefully subverted, while this film demolishes tropes with a tinge of disdain. In truth, a more apt companion piece is Rubber, the 2010 French curio ostensibly about a murderous, sentient car tire. It's a movie that openly questioned its own existence, wondering—aloud—why anyone would want to watch a film about a killer tire. Similarly, Cabin questions the use of the slasher flick, with its ever-revolving casts of stupid kids making stupid decisions and getting their stupid heads snared in bear traps.
Its response is to throw the whole institution out. In its exhilarating, blood-smeared climax, the movie sends enough horror clichés flying at the screen to give fanboys an aneurysm, and it feels like one great, giant purge—the end of horror as we know it. And really, after witnessing a dude get stabbed through the chest by a unicorn, what else is there to even see?
Oh no, I've said too much.
Critic's Score: 90
SEE IT: The Cabin in the Woods is rated R. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen, Hilltop, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville.