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Movie Review

The Cabin in the Woods

‘Cabin’ takes a whack at clever horror

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 13, 2012
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What can I tell you about “The Cabin in the Woods” without giving its secrets away? It’s more a question of all the things I can’t tell you, since this is one of those movies that makes a reviewer earn his peanuts by weighing every word for spoiler content. Let’s just say that if you like smartly twisted spins on worn-out horror cliches and if you have a strong stomach for flying body parts, put down the newspaper/laptop and go — we’ll talk later.

For those of you still reading, I can at least spill the beans about the movie’s first 15 minutes. We see the crew of college kids — all suspiciously long in the tooth for undergraduates, but never mind — piling into the RV for a wild weekend out in the country. There’s the loose blonde, Julie (Anna Hutchison); her jock boyfriend, Kurt Curt (Chris Hemsworth, “Thor”); the sensitive hunk, Holden (Jesse Williams); the stoner comic relief, Marty (Fran Kranz); and of course, the “final girl,” the virgin, Dana (Kristen Connolly). She’s not technically a virgin, but in the words of one character, “we work with what we have.”

Off they go toward certain carnage, but wait — who are those government drones in white lab coats monitoring their every move? Why is there brisk office betting on the outcome? How did actors as arch as Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford find their way into this movie?

“The Cabin in the Woods” is directed by Drew Goddard, who wrote the droll monster-movie rehash “Cloverfield,” and it is co-written by him and Joss Whedon, mastermind of cult pop properties like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the “Firefly”/”Serenity” franchise. Clever boys, and the film balances its eek-eek-eek with a larger, darker, more enjoyably ridiculous premise that gets revealed with the finesse of an old-school striptease. Even when you figure out where the movie’s going, the ride’s still worth taking.

The filmmakers and the cast are aware that other films have had this sort of fun before, notably the “Evil Dead” franchise and last year’s wonderful, little-seen “Tucker and Dale vs Evil.” “The Cabin in the Woods” is much more ambitious than that movie and less endearingly hilarious, but it successfully skirts the self-referential smugness of the “Scream” movies. If we’re not very moved by the plight of the characters — the cast is likable but the roles are intentionally thin — we want to solve the mystery of what the hell is going on as much as they do. We just don’t have a 7-foot zombie coming at us swinging a bear trap for added incentive.

The cubicle politics back at headquarters are the movie’s ace in the hole, and Jenkins and Whitford make a delightful tag-team duo of jaded bureaucrats: Think the Francois Truffaut scenes from “Close Encounters” crossed with “Office Space.”

And at a certain point, “The Cabin in the Woods” takes a quantum leap in inspiration when some of the kids find their way into the spaces between the two worlds of creepy cabin and antiseptic command HQ. The movie balances nicely on the edge of meta-horror, with characters breaking free of their assigned roles (in more ways than one) and monkey-wrenching the very urban legend they’re dying to get out of.

There are metaphors here, if you want them, about the way creative artists use and abuse their creations and, more bitingly, how the Hollywood entertainment machine manipulates characters and audiences like so many marionettes. But “The Cabin in the Woods” glances lightly off such themes, content to break out the tatty special effects and the Red Dye #2 in a climax as inventive as it is gruesome as it is brimming with cheerful Lovecraft-ian doom.

How confident is this movie? [Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!] Enough to feature a special appearance by a movie legend whose career straddles serious cinema and high-end sci-fi/horror. And also confident enough to dispatch that legend with an axe to the head.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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Movie Review

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Directed by: Drew Goddard

Written by: Goddard and Joss Whedon

Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 95 minutes

Rated: R (strong, bloody violence and gore, language, drug use,

some sexuality/nudity)

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