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FILM

The Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's twisty take on slasher flicks re-energizes and re-invents a stale genre

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The Cabin in the Woods

5 Stars
(R)

The system is broken. We, as a culture, are mired in an especially ripe age for cynicism and disinformation, and the cycles of modern horror have reflected as much: the post-9/11 emphasis on relatively innocuous ghost stories, the wave of “torture porn” that corresponded with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the welcome gullibility and invasiveness of found-footage frights at a time when there may not be such a thing as the undocumented life.

2008's Cloverfield helped kick off this latest resurgence. As written by Drew Goddard, it was a zeitgeist-tapper disguised as a monster movie, rocking Manhattan with a puzzling attack and then leaving its young protagonists to run for their suddenly shortened lives. That film's fatalism is echoed in part by Goddard's long-shelved directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, co-written by him and producer Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where Goddard got his start) and writer-director of next month's The Avengers. Cabin, however, digs deeper into why we need our celluloid nightmares.

To the film's inestimable credit, it does so in ways that have proven tricky to talk about, given how expertly the screenplay parses out its surprises. Suffice to say, we follow five co-eds into the wilderness: Curt (Chris “Thor” Hemsworth in Brad-Pitt-as-jock mode), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Dana (Kristen Connolly), Holden (Jesse Williams) and Marty (Fran Kranz in Brad-Pitt-as-stoner mode). But even before that, we get a glimpse of workplace drones Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) as they're up to something else, somewhere else. There is an easy, one-line, “Movie A-meets-Movie B” summation that would spell out the relationship between one party and the other, and if you've already seen the trailer, then you could probably piece the premise together.

What really doesn't deserve to be spoiled are the ways in which Goddard and Whedon then expand upon their cheeky concept to both lampoon and justify familiar horror tropes and archetypes. It's an exceptionally nimble balancing act between straight-faced tension and knowing commentary, and for fans of the genre, the third act in particular proves nothing short of exhilarating in its giddily, grandly gory developments. Better yet, the cast members credibly convey reactions both frightened and flippant in the face of their respective ordeals. So far as the cabin-dwellers are concerned, their perfectly pitched performances are key to selling the surface-level slasher antics, further bolstered by Peter Deming's ominous lensing and David Julyan's moody score. As one might imagine, veterans Whitford and Jenkins bring welcome relish to Goddard and Whedon's off-kilter banter in their own scenes.

Actually, there is one scene that encapsulates Cabin's charms while having no discernible bearing on the plot. Once a booze-soaked game of Truth or Dare gets underway (naturally), Jules is dared to make out with a snarling wolf head mounted on the wall, and she throws herself into the task wholeheartedly. It's a funny, sexy, tense and surreal moment that captures the chief appeal of films like these. In a post-modern, remake-happy climate, the whole kit and kaboodle is a much-needed smack upside the head to anyone expecting a typical slasher flick, and it's a must-see for anyone who's ever wanted to smack any horror character for ever suggesting that everyone should split up.

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