With Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford; Written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon; Directed by Drew Goddard; Rated R (for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity); 95 minutes.
Man, smart people should be in charge of making all horror movies, if all the horror movies made by smart people turned out as wickedly good as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Of course with its pedigree – “Buffy” and “Firefly” creator Joss Whedon writing and “Lost” producer Drew Goddard making his directorial debut – it’s no wonder that this is the shrewdest genre spoof since the first “Scream” movie came out in 1996.
Whedon and Goddard give us the most dread-worn of all horror plots: the group of photogenic young adults trekking to the remotest backwater burg for a weekend of drunken debauchery. The film may have the mathematical good fortune of being released on Friday the 13th, but predictable this movie is not. The duo proceed to prod it all with a big pointed stick and send it running wildly every which way, casting off a new cliché at every alternately laugh- and scare-packed turn.
With nods both subtle and obvious, these two fanboy favorites acknowledge both their bloody popcorn movie’s lineage and their audience’s interests. They salute so many sources, from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy to Stephen King to Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” mythos to ‘J-horror’ to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. And they do none of it with the kind of glory-seeking, “hey-check-out-how-goddamn-brilliant-we-are-for-making-more-highminded-asides-than-a-Dennis-Miller-monologue” auto-fellatio, either. The matter-of-factness of the presentation is efficient and refreshing, and never drags.
Without giving too much away (and studio Lionsgate is taking a page from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” marketing bible in keeping the plot under wraps), there is a mysterious company in the movie much like the Dharma Corporation (from “Lost”). Their business involves the manipulation of people’s lives and the staging of ghastly scenarios, thus the eponymous shack. But who do they work for, and why? Are these custom pay-per-slew events, a la “Hostel”? Is it a virtual world, like “The Matrix” (or its horror predecessor “Brainscan”)? Will everyone be alive again at the end, like in “April Fool’s Day”? It is a skillful and satisfying unraveling, with character actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford providing engaging and familiar Everyman faces that mask the company’s sinister agenda.
A real-world mystery just as interesting is why this movie sat around for over two years before its release (a svelte, pre-”Thor” Chris Hemsworth is barely recognizable). Like the unreleased “Red Dawn” remake, this one was a victim of MGM’s bankruptcy, but considering who its parents are and how enjoyable it is, it should have been sprung from the pokey far sooner. At least the new studio didn’t use the extra time to render the thing in 3-D. That is a horrible cliché that all the smarts in the world couldn’t negate.•••