Horror comedies are a rare and acquired taste. Non-horror fans don’t get the jokes, and scarehounds often feel cheated when they find themselves trembling with anything but dread.
So make no mistake: The Cabin in the Woods is not a particularly scary film. That should be obvious from the participation of cowriter Joss Whedon, best known as the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; and cowriter-director Drew Goddard, who cut his teeth on scripts for that show. Favorite Whedon actors abound in Cabin, as do his stylized dialogue rhythms and taste for geeky shout-outs. And, like much of Whedon’s work, the whole silly enterprise has serious undertones — or, as his detractors would say, pretensions.
Because, you see, The Cabin in the Woods is the closest anyone’s ever likely to get to a lighthearted stoner version of Michael Haneke’s grueling movie about violence and voyeurism, Funny Games. Like that film, it will hit home hardest with people who have enjoyed — guiltily or otherwise — watching fictional characters bite it on screen.
Whedon and Goddard’s humor is all about absurd juxtapositions, mixing pop-culture tones that shouldn’t mix. The movie opens with white-collar workers Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (Sitterson and Hadley) exchanging banalities like supporting players on “The Office.” Nothing even ominous happens, but this doesn’t stop the film’s title from appearing with a boom in a blood-red font.
From there, Cabin skips to more familiar horror-movie territory. College student Dana (Kristen Connolly) and her four friends (Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz) are headed for a weekend getaway at ... a cabin in the woods. Not unlike the young people in The Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wrong Turn, Cabin Fever and hundreds of other films, they are a good girl, a slut, a jock, a smart guy and a stoner — a slasher-film version of The Breakfast Club. They are also the type of kids who, when a heavy trapdoor flies open on a still night, remark placidly, “Must have been the wind.”
In short, they are the sacrificial lambs of hillbilly horror, a subgenre so steeped in clichés that it was satirized just last year in another movie, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. But there’s something wrong. The kids embody their archetypes a little too well — except Kranz’s character, the stoner, who keeps making surprisingly on-point remarks. (He suggests that the group, when endangered, stick together rather than split up.) Moreover, someone is watching the action in the cabin, and it’s not the usual lurking psycho.
To say more would be to spoil the movie’s best twists. While they aren’t always original, let alone plausible, they are executed with brio, buckets of fake gore and snappy one-liners — especially from Kranz, who needs to work more. The other actors, too, play their stock roles with sly comic aplomb.
But there’s a reason why slasher-movie characters are usually brain-dead eye candy — so we don’t have to care about them. Why must these poor fools die for our amusement? Are horror fans brimming with blood lust? Craving an adrenaline rush? Or do they simply enjoy feeling superior to anyone who’s clueless enough to read aloud the Latin incantation she finds in a dark basement?
In Cabin, Whedon and Goddard explore all those possibilities, portraying the genre’s fans in a way that’s simultaneously aggrandizing and profoundly unflattering. But they do so as fans, as is clear from the sheer volume of in-jokes. If you’ve been waiting for an ultra-verbal meta-horror film that takes its premise to a logical conclusion — and, I realize, that makes you a minority — this is it.
* Running time: 95 min.
* Rated: R