Director: Drew Goddard
Stars: Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Amy Acker, Jodelle Ferland, Brian White
Release date: April 13, 2012

If The Truman Show had been a horror movie, it might've looked a lot like The Cabin in the Woods.

The directorial debut of Drew Goddard—a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Lost who also penned the scripts for Cloverfield and World War ZThe Cabin in the Woods is the kind of movie where the less you know going in, the more enjoyable the experience will be. So I’ll try to keep my praise of the film, which was co-written and produced by Goddard’s mentor, Joss Whedon, as close to generalities as possible.

Here’s the basic setup (which is largely revealed in the film’s trailer and opening scene): the film opens in an underground facility, where two lab techs—Sitterson (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (three-time Golden Globe nominee Bradley Whitford)—are preparing for some sort of mysterious ritual. From here, the camera quickly travels to what is a much more familiar horror movie setup: five college students setting off for a peaceful weekend in the woods. On the surface, the group seems to be comprised of all the regular “cabin in the woods” horror movie stereotypes: the girl next door, the jock, his hot blonde girlfriend, the good guy intellectual, and the goofball comic relief. 

But from the get-go, you realize there’s something different about this particular setup and this particular group of co-eds. The dialogue is way smarter than you’d expect from your run-of-the-mill horror movie, and so are the characters. There is no virginal hero (emphasis on virgin), the good guy doesn’t save the day and even the token jock and his hot blonde girlfriend aren’t idiots (he’s on a full academic scholarship; she’s pre-med). And the burnout with his many marijuana-induced fantasies and conspiracy theories? Well, he may turn out to be the most prescient of them all. 

As the kids set sail for the titular getaway for the weekend, the camera pans up to reveal that they’re under surveillance, as a guy on the roof reports back to the team in the lab that the plan is in motion.

The road from Point A to Point B is not a straight one, but it’s in these unexpected detours—which fly at the audience fast and furiously—that the movie finds its greatness. And it’s Goddard’s willingness to disclose from the very beginning that this cabin getaway is really just a setup that is the film’s boldest, and most brilliant, strategy. And it pays off. Because the film would not have worked nearly as well (or allowed for so many moments of genuine comedy with Jenkins and Whitford) had he opted to instead make this known as a “big reveal” at the end. 

The bulk of today’s horror movies seem to find themselves existing in one of three very specific categories: horror-comedy (Shaun of the Dead), gratuitously violent (The Human Centipede) or cheap scares without substance (The Conjuring). Of the horror movies that are given a wide release in any given year, most of them exist in that final category. The Cabin in the Woods can’t be so easily categorized. 

It’s a horror movie for bona fide horror movie fans (we’re talking real horror movies, not the PG-13 crap that cuts it in wide release today). Meta in a way that Scream tried to be and had moderate success achieving, The Cabin in the Woods goes beyond that approach. A tribute to the sort of auteur-driven horror films that made Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and John Carpenter household names before found footage and/or overdone CGI became the vessel of choice for many horror-makers, Goddard takes the same characters and situations horror movie fans have become all too familiar with over the years and turns them upside down. There’s the token crazy old man who serves as a harbinger of things to come when he warns the group of their imminent demise, and a basement full of strange historical artifacts and a diary which, when read aloud, summons a family of zombie rednecks from their burial grounds. Shades of The Evil Dead? Absolutely. And that’s a good thing.

Though the story jumps right in, the mayhem takes a while to ramp up. It’s as if the filmmakers want us to get to know—and like—the characters before they start killing them off. But pick them off they will, and in various ways that will only help to steer the story forward, until the very end of the movie when all hell literally begins to break loose, with appearances from an anonymous version of essentially every horror movie villain that has ever existed—prehistoric creatures, werewolves, killer clowns, zombies, creepy kids, mask-wearing sociopaths and even a mer-man.

It’s both an indictment of the crap the genre has been producing in recent years and a prime example of how today’s horror films can be so much more. Simply put, The Cabin in the Woods is the thinking movie lover's horror movie. Jennifer Wood