Halloween comes early for horror fans in The Cabin in the Woods (***), an engaging and imaginative outing from filmmakers who know the genre and, perhaps just as importantly, enjoy and respect it. It embraces the conventions and then, wittily, expands the parameters.
The set-up is familiar to the point of cliché, as five young friends (Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz and Chris Hemsworth) — all archetypes of horror-film characters — gather to visit the self-explanatory title enclave for a weekend of revelry. They’re even warned by a grimy, tobacco-chewing local yokel (Tim De Zarn) that it’s not safe at the cabin and that they’d do well to leave. Where have we heard that one before? (Many, many times, in fact.)
But that is truly just the beginning of the set-up and the story, as our young friends’ activities are being monitored, and manipulated, in a high-tech underground bunker. Bradley Whitford and the always welcome Richard Jenkins bring a lot of caustic humor to their roles as the computer technicians overseeing the situation, doing their best (and worst) to ensure that the situation goes according to plan, lest there be hell to pay — an axiom that turns out to be fairly literal as the story progresses.
Genre fans will detect any number of nods and homages to horror media, including a big nod to the works of HP Lovecraft.
Screenwriters Josh Whedon and Drew Goddard (the former also produced, the latter makes his feature directorial debut) clearly revel in the game-changing aspects of the story, which is anything but straightforward. To divulge too much would spoil the fun, much of which hinges on slyly twisting expectations. This is much smarter, much better, than the standard hack-and-slash fare — although it doesn’t skimp on the gore, either.
Good performances abound, which is also something of a rarity in this sort of thing. Connolly and Hutchison are quite lovely (even when covered in grue), Williams and Hemsworth are handsome and stalwart, and Kranz makes his bid to steal the film with a funny, fresh take on the stereotypical stoner along for the ride (and comic relief), who winds up an unlikely hero.
The Cabin in the Woods was lensed three years ago – before, in fact, Hemsworth was even cast in Thor (2011) — and films that have spent that much time in limbo, or on the shelf, usually prove not to be worth the wait. But this is a rare and welcome exception to the rule. It’s a winner, fully deserving of the cult status it will likely and quickly attain.
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