Taking on the Clichés

'The Cabin in the Woods' features fine scares—and a thought-provoking puzzle

After sitting on the shelf and gathering dust for three years, The Cabin in the Woods has finally made it to movie screens.

You know something strange is afoot when a movie called The Cabin in the Woods—billed as a horror film—starts with two guys having a water-cooler conversation about childproof cabinets. The crazy rule-benders are writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon, Whedon being the father of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hero to geeks everywhere. The film is quite clever—maybe a little too clever at times.

The setup sees a typical sampling of college students getting ready for a vacation at the lake. They are Curt the Jock (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor!), Dana the Almost-Virgin (Kristen Connolly), Jules the Whore (Anna Hutchison), Holden the Hot Nerd (Jesse Williams) and Marty the Wisecracking Stoner (Fran Kranz).

Meanwhile, we see those two water-cooler guys, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), heading to work at the same time the kids are heading to the lake. While their work station looks like the control room of a factory or power plant, their job tasks consist of a lot more than button-pushing.

Even though the film, more or less, lets viewers know what the two men are up to fairly quickly, I won't reveal it here. Just because the revelation comes fast doesn't mean some stupid movie critic should force you to know it before you even have a chance to sit down.

On the way to their vacation spot, the gang, of course, meets a tobacco-chewing hick who owns a gas station and speaks ominously about where they are going. The Harbinger (Tim De Zarn) later takes part in the film's best joke.

The cabin where the group vacations looks like it is straight out of Sam Raimi's original The Evil Dead. And, to no true horror fan's surprise, it has a basement full of creepy things. The students pick up what appear to be different horror-film artifacts (a dusty diary, a Hellraiser-like puzzle, etc.), and one of those items activates a relatively scary horror scenario involving killer zombies.

As a straight-up horror film, The Cabin in the Woods is pretty good. The zombies and monsters are well-done, and the cast can scream with the best of them. I'd put the horror portion of this film alongside the recent remakes of Friday the 13th and The Hills Have Eyes, which were decent genre exercises. The gore is good, and the scares are moderately effective.

Fortunately, Cabin is more than just a horror movie. It's a puzzle movie, with many secrets to reveal. Goddard and Whedon let the proverbial cats out of the bag in a progressive and consistent fashion, with the action building up to a rather grand cameo. You might be able to guess some of the stuff, but you are probably lying if you say you figured it all out before the credits rolled.

Last year, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil took one horror-genre cliché (the killer redneck) and flipped it, resulting in the year's funniest movie. The Cabin in the Woods goes after seemingly everything in the genre, and that's an expansive target. It's up to you to decide whether the movie is glorifying or condemning those clichés.

The film's best moments belong to Jenkins and Whitford, and Goddard must be commended for casting them. I can't imagine a different pair of actors doing what these guys do any better. For me, they make the movie.

As for the five students, Hemsworth fares the best, although I half expected him to just throw his mighty hammer at the zombies and end the whole thing quickly. Kranz has a bit of a Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo thing going, and he utilizes what just might be cinema history's coolest bong. Connolly is somebody to root for as the (almost) innocent girl fighting for survival, while Hutchison looks mighty good while making out with a mounted wolf head.

The Cabin in the Woods is one of those movies that impress you even more on the ride home when you are thinking it over. It really does have a great premise, and the execution of that premise is often quite brilliant.

I'll go ahead and predict that there is no chance for a sequel.

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