Fran Kranz, left, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison in a scene from "The… (Diyah Pera / Lionsgate )
You'd think by now college kids would know better than to head to an isolated cabin deep in the woods for a laid-back weekend of beer, swimming and truth or dare, because… cue spooky music … as everyone knows by now most of them are destined to die, falling to their blood-soaked ends like dominoes: One. By. One.
Actually that's exactly what longtime horror-making buddies Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard are counting on — that everyone knows all the tricks and tropes in the scary movie playbook. Because really"The Cabin in the Woods" is an inside joke — a one-way ticket to all the genre's worst nightmares told in a very tongue and cheeky "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ('92 movie, TV series, multiple spinoffs, all conceived by Whedon) style.
The laughs come easily, the screams not so much. It's as if the filmmakers got so wrapped up in the satire they forgot to include the intense sensation of rising dread that creates all the thrills and chills that are part of the attraction.
The jock, the blond, the nerd, the good guy, the "virgin" — they are all there — with Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams and Kristen Connolly slipping right into their stereotypes. Now if that brand of humorous horror homage sounds a little too much "been there, done that" — "Scream 1,2,3,4," say — Whedon and Goddard have a few more tricks up their sleeve.
The new wrinkle in time is some FBI-like black ops that may or may not factor in to the health and well-being of the blond, the jock, the nerd.... It allows the filmmakers to take some digs at Big Brother-styled surveillance, reality TV, GPS-technology and other high-tech horrors that a wired world, and some weird thinking, might spawn. The setting is mission control with everyone settling in to monitor the cabin action in wide-screen comfort, though whether it's sanctioned snooping isn't clear for a while. Truman (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), with white shirts, ties and big-shot worries, are the men in charge, at least of the office pool and making sure the pizza gets delivered.
It all begins innocently enough with good girl Dana (Connolly) mooning over the professor who dumped her and packing weighty textbooks instead of a bikini. Her friend and roomy Jules (Hutchison) has just gone blond, a look that totally works for her football-playing hunk Curt (Hemsworth). Marty (Kranz) is the dope-smoking geek who turns up late but is likely to be early on the chopping block, and Holden (Williams) is the new guy, both stud and dean's list material, so a marked man as well.
All the actors do a decent job with whatever is thrown at them — usually sharp objects. There are some clever cameos to watch for and someone will no doubt eventually compile a list of the many horror movie references thrown into the grizzle and guts.
Goddard, who directs from a script co-written with Whedon, sets the tone from the beginning with a lot of quirky camera angles — you may be tempted to try to adjust the screen like a crooked picture. But there's no time really because that ever-diminishing group of friends is quickly forced to face off endless evil, including — but not limited to — zombies, aliens, fearsome monsters, graves, ghosts, grim clowns, grim reapers, dead-eyed dolls, SWAT teams, janitors, more zombies.
There is a lot of blood — in fact it's hard to think of many scenes that don't have a lot of blood.
Making his directing debut with "Cabin," Goddard, cinematographer Peter Deming ("Drag Me to Hell") and production designer Martin Whist ("Super 8") have packed the dark shadows and tight spaces of the cabin world with countless nostalgic touches — if you can call weird porcelain dolls, rusted chains and rows of knives nostalgic.