Don't read this review. If you've made it this far without anyone spoiling the surprises lurking in The Cabin in the Woods, don't let me be the jerk who ruins it for you. I'll proceed with care and avoid any actual spoilers, but, still—the less you know, the better. Go see it now. I'll wait. I'll wait for a long time, in fact, because, if you're a horror fan, you're going to want to see it twice.
For the first few minutes, The Cabin in the Woods gives you exactly what you'd expect from a movie called The Cabin in the Woods. By design, the set-up is painfully familiar: five college students pile into an RV and head to a remote cabin for a weekend of sex, booze, weed, and gory dismemberment. They don't know about that last part, of course, in spite of a warning by a creepy gas-station attendant that would make me call it a weekend and look for the nearest densely populated T.G.I. Friday's. But horror movie victims-in-waiting are never swayed by cryptic threats, so on they go to the isolated death cabin (no cellphone service!), where they proceed to get nicely liquored up. Someone suggests a game of truth or dare that soon has the kids filing into the cabin's cellar, which is full of eerie trinkets that hint at the property's dark history.
And then everything changes as first-time feature director Drew Goddard, working from a script he co-wrote with Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, playfully yanks the blood-soaked rug out from under you. It would be cruel to spoil any of Cabin's rapid-fire, eye-popping, mind-bending twists, but I can tell you this much: In a single moment devoid of any special effects or jump scares—a moment that involves nothing more sinister than office workers gathered around a whiteboard—we begin to realize what Goddard and Whedon are getting at, and their ambition is staggering. These guys aren't just playing with slasher movie tropes with Scream-style self-awareness; they're building a mythology that ties together a century of horror movies and literature, and they're doing it with style, wit, piles of charm, and plenty of pointed but good-natured critique of its own genre. In many ways, Cabin is the greatest episode of Buffy you've never seen.
Of course, we know from the film's first moments that something even stranger than bong-worship and serial murder is going on in that cabin. The kids are being monitored by the employees of a mysterious corporation that has a vested interest in their fates. We also know that middle-management drones Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadly (Bradley Whitford) intend to manipulate the outcome of the grisly events that are about to unfold. The question is, why? The fun lies in finding out.
It also lies in wondering how far Goddard and Whedon are going to go with the craziness that starts when the killing does. The answer: all the way, baby. By the time the end credits roll, you'll have seen some of the most bizarre lunacy you've ever laid eyes on in a mainstream cineplex. Cabin's final act is a horror-movie hit parade that charges forward every time you think it's going to pull back.
But amid all the crazy images and meta in-jokes, the filmmakers never forget their first and most sacred duty: to tell a good story. On its most basic level, Cabin works as a horror flick because we actually care about the characters lined up for the butcher's block. Horror movies often encourage us to cheer for the villain, but this one has us rooting for characters who are usually little more than chainsaw fodder. We came for blood and sex and we get both, but it's served up with endless amounts of heart and brains, too. It's not particularly frightening—the laughs and playfulness cancel out most of the scares—but Cabin builds considerable suspense as we wait for the blood to flow.
The game here isn't simply to point out the horror genre's clichés—ignoring dire warnings, investigating unlit basements, splitting up rather than sticking together. It's to make them work in ways they've never worked before. Cabin doesn't subvert expectations so much as justify them and put them to work in fiendishly clever ways, taking us to task for our own ghoulish tastes in the process. For all its chin-stroking and rib-nudging, though, it's first and foremost a hell of a story, told with considerable skill and energy. It's the most fun I've had at the movies this year, and I can't wait to go back.