When Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho opened in 1960 it was carried into theaters on a wave of advertising that commanded audiences to keep mum about the story’s surprising elements. Thanks in part to that ad campaign, Psycho became a hit that changed horror films even as it legitimized them. The mainstream horror genre quickly developed around a codified set of tropes, character archetypes and specific rules that, fifty years later, are tiresome in their predictability.

Marketing for The Cabin in the Woods, from director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon, exploits some of that same “don’t tell friends how it ends!” PR mode. But that’s just a smokescreen. Goddard and Whedon aim to demolish the archetypes born in the wake of that early popularization of horror, and in doing so bring a sense of spontaneous fun back to the genre.

The pair succeeds spectacularly. The Cabin in the Woods is a blast. It’s a film for anyone who feels the spark has gone out of horror. This movie is clever and quite self-aware, and it has very specific ideas about what caused horror to fall into rote patterns. As they get around to explaining just how horror turned into what it is today, Goddard and Whedon give the audience a chum bucket full of the thrills it wants, but also argues that playing by the rules is the wrong way to go.

I’m going to keep this spoiler-free, so here’s the brief plot recap. (In truth, the plot of Cabin isn’t as sacrosanct as it has been made out to be, but in the interest of entertainment I’ll play along.)

Five friends, played by Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams, head to a remote cabin for a weekend of fun. But the cabin isn’t quite what it seems, as events that transpire within are controlled by an exterior crew that seeks to manipulate the partying crew to a gruesome end. There is a similarity to the Cube films in that plot construction, particularly Cube Zero, but Goddard and Whedon go well beyond that series as they playfully twist horror elements into new shapes.

Without getting into details, I do have to note that beyond that manipulating outside crew there is a larger force at work in the film, too, that has some bearing on how and why this horror-movie-like tableau plays out. The metaphor is clear: The Cabin in the Woods apes the very process of crafting a horror film, from efforts of string-pulling filmmakers, so ready to lean on tropes and stereotypes, to the influence of a ravenous, demanding audience. The characters are caught in the middle. And while these characters don’t realize they are in a movie — as I said, the self-awareness doesn’t veer into full-tilt preciousness — they do realize that they’re being manipulated, and seek to do something about it.

That all sounds frightfully academic, but Cabin is no dusty textbook. Goddard and Whedon’s script is light on its feet and quick to indulge with our expectations of character types based on chosen actors before veering off into different territory. They know we see the tall, muscled blond guy (Hemsworth) and expect the oh-so-typical horror movie jock. That line is played out out just a bit before it pulls audience attention towards a much more modern group of friends. Whedon is known for having an easy handle on genre trappings, and his signature style flavors the dialogue with a zing that rebuffs the boneheaded stupidity of so many horror scripts.

And, let it be said, no one is really safe. Because this remains a horror film at its core, gore splatters the screen, characters meet wildly ugly ends and the third act escalates into an orgy of craziness that immediately takes a spot on the list of great genre film climaxes.

In the meantime, there is a bunker full of drones and technicians trying to manipulate the cabin group for their own ends. As the middle-tier project managers overseeing the operation, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford provide dry and pointed notes of workplace comedy; by letting these guys be the comic voice, scenes at the cabin can be given over entirely to horror. Cutting between the parallel lines keeps the film’s pulse high. Jenkins and Whitford’s slightly pathetic, distant observation of the action at the cabin plays right into Goddard and Whedon’s criticism of horror, even as it draws the film’s biggest genuine laughs.

While the big talking point for The Cabin in the Woods has long been the secretive nature of the plot, in truth the film doesn’t derive its energy from spoil-able suspense. Rather, it is a tight, simple script crafted in such a way as to draw genre aficionados into multiple viewings, the better to pay attention to the myriad minor details that litter scene after scene. Frankly, I’m looking forward to the film’s blu-ray release so I can go frame by frame through a few segments that were so packed with stuff that I’m positive I missed some neat little touch.

If there was any true closure in filmmaking, The Cabin in the Woods would nail shut the box of horror film stereotypes that some filmmakers and audiences have used as crutches for decades. That probably isn’t going to happen, but we can still celebrate Drew Goddard’s movie as one of the most energetic, nimble and entertaining horror films to hit the screen in a long time.

/Film score: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Russ Fischer lives in Los Angeles. For film reviews, the 1-10 scale breakdown goes like this: anything over a 5 is positive. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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