A jock, a party girl, a more studious jock, a virgin and a nerd go into the woods...
Though it sounds like one we've heard — not to mention already seen — before, "The Cabin in the Woods" takes a familiar set-up and keeps hacking and slashing, deeper and darker, into forests where even Grimm brothers dare not tread. Also, it has an office party.
Some 16 years after the first "Scream" gave horror movie clichés a sly nudge in the ribs, this worthy successor tickles them then cracks them open. Once again, a group of preternaturally attractive young people get together with the intention of putting themselves in maximum danger. No, that's not the stated goal, but that's how our heads roll.
In charge of the trip this time is Drew Goddard, the writer of "Cloverfield" as well as vital cog of "Lost" and "Alias." More relevantly, he also wrote for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." So when directing for the the first time, he had Buffy/Angel auteur Joss Whedon along as co-writer, producer and second-unit director.
This movie has sat on the shelf for some time because of studio financial problems, not lack of merit. But it may take Buffy fans back to her glory days. As TCITW travels its twisty, jolting path, its mix of gore and humor, angst and action, plus workaday, ho-hum routine at the horror center bears all the hallmarks of the Buffyverse. Be afraid, be very afraid, but don't stop the clever asides and visual puns.
Stereotypes take your places! Sexy but shy Dana (Kristen Connolly) plans to take her economics books along for the weekend, but her sleek and newly blonde roommate Jules (Anna Hutchison) assures her they will have better things to do than study. Jules' hunky boyfriend Curt, a blondish quarterback, has loaded up the motorhome for a weekend of fun. And since Curt is a virtually Nordic god — to be specific, our current Thor, Chris Hemsworth — we can see why Jules is up for the ride.
Still, was it a good idea for her to dye her hair? Would Jules be concerned to hear another character describe the formula as "Dumb Blonde?" Maybe not.
Curt has thoughtfully invited along his equally hunky teammate Holden (Jesse Williams of "Grey's Anatomy"), doing the double duty of keeping Dana company and providing the cast with a slightly non-white character.
Our victims, er, leads, seem set. But at the last minute, up drives their pal Marty in a cloud of smoke from a giant bong. Fortunately, stoned but sharp Marty, a very sly Fran Kranz, has devised it to telescope down into a thermal mug. Because the group certainly doesn't want any attention as they party at Curt's cousin's newly purchased cabin out at the lake.
You know, the one "off the grid," past the decrepit gas station with the wild-eyed, unshaven attendant, up the unpaved, one-lane road clinging to the cliff and through that long mountain tunnel. The place with no neighbors. Well, no living neighbors.
But our college pals are not alone among the plot threads. Even before they take off, we've encountered two upper-middle-management types, Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) at the vending machines of some large, office-science-security kind of complex.
Their white-coated colleague Lin (Amy Acker) is after them about some upcoming test, but whatever that project is, the two men seem to be looking forward to it. Theirs apparently is one of several facilities the enterprise has around the world, and Hadley simultaneously expects his Japanese counterparts to maintain a perfect record while hoping for a chance to top their performance.
From here, some things should be obvious: Kids, don't go in the cellar! Kids, don't go in the woods! Girls, don't take off your tops! Dudes, you were right the first time, stick together!
Other answers are not so self-evident. What are Hadley's co-workers betting on so vigorously? All the departments are getting in on the action, even maintenance. Only the new guy seems a bit put off by the fun. Lin looks guilty, but she puts her money in too. And what's all that on those screens behind them? Disasters seem to be happening all over the world. Not to mention that floating ghost witch plaguing a classroom of Japanese schoolgirls.
A lot happens in this movie that is strictly, strikingly visual. The viewer needs to be alert, because the dark corners of that cellar are jammed packed with objects that recall other horrors, mainly from other horror movies. And eventually, more than a cabin-full of creatures and villains will take over the screen. Buffy fans may take the initiative in figuring this out, but here Goddard and Whedon have structured their story as frames within frames and keep pushing the boundaries.
Of course, Whedon has a bigger product bearing down on us, the confabulation of Marvel's "The Avengers" after their series of individually superhero movies, which ranged from OK to so-so. "The Avengers" may be something sort of wicked, a death match between directorial ingenuity and merchandising inevitability.
With "The Cabin in the Woods," though, Goddard and Whedon faced no such constraints. TCITW certainly has its screams, but it's not just poking the underpinnings of horror movies, it's repositioning them. Goddard and his talented cast have marched horror movies into new territory, at the end of the world as Hollywood knows it. It feels fine.