If it's true that you always kill the thing you love, then horror honchos Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have taken an ax to slasher cinema in The Cabin in the Woods and chopped it up for kindling. With love, mind you, and a potently playful sense of mischief. Cabin is a deliciously devious scare dance that keeps changing the steps until you lose your shit and fall helplessly into its demonic traps. Screenwriters Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Goddard (Cloverfield), in his feature-directing debut, are fright-obsessed. They're also pissed seeing terror morph into torture porn that drowns the human element in buckets of blood.
Don't get me wrong. The Cabin in the Woods is far from a "say no to gore" sermon. It's fiendishly funny. Can you laugh and shriek at the same time? Yeah, baby. Scream proved that back in 1996. But Cabin goes deeper than a self-reflexive game of name-checking gorefests from Evil Dead to Halloween. Every cliché Cabin pitches is likely to come back and bite you in the ass. Take the setup: Five college kids climb into an RV and head for the last cabin on the left near a Friday the 13th-ish lake where fantasies of rocking sex and drugs turn into the biggest nightmare this side of Elm Street. At first, the characters seem cardboard-thin: Chris Hemsworth (Thor) as Curt the jock, Anna Hutchison as Jules the slut, Kristen Connolly as Dana (her virginal opposite), Jesse Williams as Holden the nerd and Fran Kranz as Marty the stoner. Then they go in the basement, where monstrous challenges await them.
Say what? You heard me. Whedon and Goddard tip us off early that something is up by introducing Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), techies who seem to be running a rogue surveillance op. Forgive my vagueness. But spoilers are a bitch. You unlock this cabin door with the key of imagination, and the next stop is a newfangled Twilight Zone. Just fly with it, especially since Jenkins and Whitford are the go-to dudes for a blissed-out blend of mirth and malice.
Props to the cast for going beyond the call of bloodbath duty. Connolly is a standout, bringing emotional nuance to her role even as the filmmakers bombard her with everything from zombies to a killer unicorn. And Kranz, now on Broadway in Death of a Salesman, is comic dynamite as the pothead. You haven't lived until you see him use a bong as a weapon of mass destruction.
Cabin keeps springing scary surprises. And it's wicked, twisted fun until the violence starts nagging at you. The gods and monsters of the movie never question their appetite for gutting pretty young things. But you'll question yours for sure before the film's shocking end. Ironically, Cabin was made in 2009 but got stuck in studio limbo when MGM declared bankruptcy. Now Lionsgate has let the beast out. Punishment is its own reward, especially at the box office. But Whedon and Goddard are hunting bigger game. By turning splatter formula on its empty head, Cabin shows you can unleash a fire-breathing horror film without leaving your brain or your heart on the killing floor.