Cabin in the Woods

The backwoods bite back in genre-twisting Cabin in the Woods by Goddard and Whedon
PROBLEMS AHEAD: Holden (Jesse Williams) and Dana (Kristen Connolly) confront an unseen terror. Photo courtesy of Diyah Pera

Take some no-name young actors and imprison them in some rural spider trap. Then cut up a few of them, while the rest stew in their juices, waiting their turn. Add a hillbilly to say things like, "The lambs have passed through the gate.'

A formula for box-office success, as well as popular ennui, but The Cabin in the Woods, a collaboration by director Drew Goddard (of Cloverfield) and co-writer Joss Whedon, has produced one very witty attack on the genre.

What could be more relaxing than a vacation in the woods for some pals: confident prom-king-type Curt (Chris Hemsworth); his girlfriend, Jules (Anna Hutchison); Dana (Kristen Connolly) as Our Surviving Virgin; and the self-assured yet not-aloof Holden (Jesse Williams) as hero material.

Whedon's apparent fascination with the TV cartoon Scooby Doo is such that his pack of supernatural warriors in Buffy the Vampire Slayer were known as "Scoobies.' The beatnik character Shaggy in that cartoon serves as the apparent model for The Cabin in the Woods' true-North compass, Marty (Fran Kranz, using a lazy yet wise voice that sounds like folksinger Ramblin' Jack Elliott).

Potheads used to spread the rumor that "Shaggy' was the first cartoon character to party; thus Marty is a dedicated pothead with one sterling Bondian gadget: a bong that disguises itself as a stainless-steel coffee thermos.

When the cabin ordeal begins, Marty is the one who first figures out that he and his buddies are being staked out like goats for supernatural tigers: "We are puppets!' he drawls.

In fact, the events are being watched closely via closed-circuit cameras by a mysterious Mission Control. The slaughter is organized with the harried but essentially calm style of an Apollo moon mission.

In tie and rolled-up sleeves, Richard Jenkins is the perfect mid-level technician, putting his team through the job. He is advised and warned by that most familiar of familiar female offscreen computer voices: an actress whose name is better left a surprise.

The possibility of defeat, always present in Jenkins' warm yet wary face, naturally materializes. Sorry to report that it's another bad day for technology, which has a nice catastrophic failure against a roster full of terrors. These include, but are not limited to, "Deadites,' mermen, a levitating Japanese girl, a lamprey-faced ballerina, clowns and unicorns.

The film offers us a circusy apocalypse, so ornate it's slightly outside the scary zone. One revered Buffy when it was most thrilling (as when "The Gentlemen' floated through town at midnight, pale, lean, smiling, their ties tightly knotted).

But one liked it very much at other times, in interpersonal relations with the doleful vampires who wore the wrong clothes because the style had changed since they died—or in watching a young witch discovering her sexuality; the first implied cunnilingus scene on network TV occurred during the 2001 episode "Once More, With Feeling.' During its magic seven seasons, Buffy commented on the Fortean way all crazy phenomena converges like parallel lines in the infinite. Shouldn't a world that has vampires be fully Transylvanian?

On paper, The Cabin in the Woods is an exercise in knowing the drill, but Goddard executes it with serious brio and wit. And the film displays a breadth of reference that isn't in most of these Old Dark Cabin pictures: H.P. Lovecraft, reprints of Winsor McCay and perhaps (I'm guessing here) the mysterious stone sculptures called "Los Danzantes' at the ancient city of Monte Albon in Oaxaca.

Some might find Whedon and Goddard's craphounding relentlessly cute or too much like the old "Scenes We'd Like to See' in Mad magazine. But only playfulness and deconstruction can bring some new life to something as worn down as the deadly cabin and its cargo of corpses-to-be.

The Cabin in the Woods asks all the right questions: Why do these kids get libidinous when there are angry spirits ready to kill them? Why do they keep forgetting they're half-dressed?

Ultimately, what does this kind of film mean? Happily, viewers will be not just entertained by The Hunger Games–like finale of The Cabin in the Woods, but also left with some suggestion of who—or what—is being placated by this kind of spectacle.

The Cabin in the Woods

R; 95 min.

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