Horror films undergo a major metamorphosis about every decade when a new movie reconstitutes genre conventions -- think Halloween, The Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream -- and causes a ripple effect among fans and other horror filmmakers.
My gut feeling is that the self-conscious and rather clever The Cabin in the Woods will prove to be such a film. Perhaps not the bloody movie spectacle for the casual horror fan -- I base this suggestion on the audience murmur I overheard post-screening Monday night -- The Cabin in the Woods should prove to have a happy post-theatrical afterlife on DVD and Blu-ray as it finds its place among serious horror aficionados.
From left, Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison explore 'The Cabin in the Woods.'
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This is the kind of movie worth repeated watching and pausing to pick up on the clever nods to other horror films and the geeky surprises lurking in the background.
So what makes it so special? I can't tell you because revealing too much of the plot beyond a cursory summation would ruin the surprises and diffuse the fun. Just know that The Cabin in the Woods' title is a ruse, a carnival barker luring audiences into theaters expecting one thing and delivering another experience instead.
The film sets itself up as an Evil Dead-type experience with a drunken band of horn-dog college students who come to rue their vacation choice in a gloomy, rustic cabin. That happens, of course, but that's only part of this story, and a rather insignificant portion at that. (If you want a quick clue as to what's going on, pay attention to the film's opening credits and ask yourself what these images mean.)
Dana (Kristen Connolly), best friend Jules (Anna Hutchison), and her boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth, better known now as Thor), his pal Holden (Jesse Williams), along with stoner comic relief Marty (Fran Kranz) are the unwitting college students. As far as a horror cast goes, it's a top-notch crew, with each actor relishing in the campy fun of their designated stereotype. The quintet is going off the grid -- no cell phone service, no Internet -- for a weekend trip to a lake cabin. But it's a visit to the creepy basement that seals their fate and unleashes the horror. Yet there's something much bigger behind the carnage to come, and that's where the great divide between critics and audiences comes into play.
Kristen Connolly fights for survival in the latest horror flick to turn heads.
It's not a coincidence that there's a character in this film named Truman.
The Cabin in the Woods, which was conceived and co-written by geek filmmaker Josh Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the upcoming Avengers) and Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost), making his directorial debut, doesn't go where you think it should, and that's a good thing. The pair treat the horror genre as their own sandbox, and are limited only by their imagination and, one would suspect, a studio executive's budget.
And while this film is not for everyone -- those who like their slasher film cliches without irony shouldn't bother -- anyone who likes brains to go with their blood are bound to appreciate what Whedon and Goddard have conjured.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
Directed by Drew Goddard. Written by Joss Whedon and Goddard. A Lionsgate release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use, and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 95 minutes.
Critic's rating: ****
Dana ............ Kristen Connolly
Curt .......... Chris Hemsworth
Jules .......... Anna Hutchison
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.