From a movie buff's perspective, The Cabin in the Woods represents the most exciting shake-up in the slasher genre since Scream, 16 years ago. But where Scream went one direction, introducing self-awareness to a formula that desperately needed it, The Cabin in the Woods takes another route. Instead of characters who have seen slasher movies before and know what the "rules" are, we get a whole new configuration altogether.
If that analysis sounds too geeky, don't worry: anyone who's even vaguely familiar with the genre of movies where good-looking teenagers are killed one at a time by an unstoppable menace will find plenty to enjoy in this ingenious deconstruction of it. The really hardcore devotees will just geek out a little harder, that's all.
The scenario is standard, quite intentionally so. (You'll see why.) Five college kids are heading to a lake house for a weekend of revelry: demure Dana (Kristen Connolly), dumb blonde Jules (Anna Hutchison), her jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), handsome nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), and comical stoner Marty (Fran Kranz). As part of our cultural DNA, we are programmed to understand that not all of them will survive, due to some as-yet-unknown person or thing in the woods.
But before we meet them -- in the movie's very first scene -- we meet Steve Hadley (Richard Jenkins) and Richard Sitterson (Bradley Whitford), engineers at some kind of research facility or secret laboratory or something. What, if anything, do they have to do with the kids at the lake house? WHAT INDEED??
That's all you're getting from me in terms of plot summary. Parceling out information strategically (but not frustratingly!) is one of the movie's strong suits, keeping us so regularly entertained by new twists in the story that we forget how much there is that we don't know yet. The writers are Drew Goddard (who also directed) and Joss Whedon, both veterans of serialized, slightly sarcastic genre television programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Lost, all of which frequently excelled at masterful storytelling, especially when they had a clear endgame in mind. Fans will recognize the tone, which can switch effortlessly from self-aware irony (We're like the Scooby-Doo gang, huntin' monsters!) to disarming sincerity (My best friend was killed by a monster, and I'm genuinely sad).
When it's over, it's easy to appreciate how The Cabin in the Woods could have been nothing more than a lifeless exercise in cleverness. Centering a story on five characters who are intentionally archetypal is risky: there's a fine line between archetypal and generic. But these five are endearing and funny, coming across as interesting figures even as they fill their prescribed roles -- a rare example of slasher-movie characters who we DON'T want to see killed.
It's worth noting that while the film is about horror, and has many terrific horror elements, it's not particularly scary -- nor is it meant to be. The idea is to set up a movie we've seen a hundred times before, and then to rearrange it into something new and deliriously satisfying. What a fun, brilliant movie this is.