Review: Audacious, entertaining 'Cabin in the Woods' goes over the edge

Slasher movie victims never make the smart move — but here at least, we learn who's pulling the strings.
Cabin in the Woods.   Lionsgate Kristen Connolly 
stars as Dana in The
Cabin in the Woods. LionsgateKristen Connolly stars as Dana in The
Published April 11 2012

By Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

I've always wondered how people in horror flicks make such terminally stupid decisions, why sexy blonds have the least fun, and where the old coot predicting doom gets his information. The Cabin in the Woods answers those questions and more, in a freaky-gory manner so far off-the-wall that it could be a coffee table.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the next cult phenom, which I'll try hard to not spoil with details. Better for audiences to discover for themselves the pretzel logic of slasher flicks, crazily defined and mocked here. The Cabin in the Woods isn't merely another Scream exercise in self-awareness, or a Scary Movie spoof of the same. It's a wickedly smart hybrid mutation, biting the severed hand feeding the genre.

At its core is the usual Spam-in-a-cabin yarn: Four young, photogenic stereotypes (and one Shaggy stoner pal) take off for a wilderness weekend of sex, drugs and eventual dismemberment. The virgin — well, almost — has the best chance of survival; the sexually active cutie, the worst. Something lurks in the woods. Everyone should stick together for safety, but they don't.

Meanwhile, there are moments to make you think the projectionist spliced in footage from another movie. A pair of techie working stiffs clocks in, sharing mundane conversation, settling into some kind of mission control room, taking bets on something strange. What they're doing there — and here in this movie — becomes clear in short order. They are the men behind the curtain, meta puppeteers making sure everyone in the woods dies on schedule.

From that twisted dual perspective, director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon create a blood-red snowball effect of satire, adding layers of calculated insanity as it rolls along. The puppeteers are revealed as the conscience (or lack thereof) of any filmmaker who ever faked a disembowelment and picked a cliche monster to do it. The campers are led through situations finally exposed for their stupidity, and ours for buying into it before.

Now, that's where Scream and Scary Movie ended, but The Cabin in the Woods is just getting warmed up. We haven't discussed the whys and hows of the puppeteers' stratagem, and we won't. Whenever Goddard and Whedon's imagination appears to have peaked, there's another, weirder development in store, until there's nowhere else for The Cabin in the Woods to go except over the edge. So it does.

I can envision college term papers being written about the myriad ideas at work here: the interchangeable nature of terror, the totems of modern horror from occult puzzles to creepy Japanese schoolgirls, the archetypes of nasty-death victims.

But that makes The Cabin in the Woods sound less audacious and entertaining than it is. Go for the gore or the loopy scheme behind it, but get there before your friends do.

Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.