But soon enough, we're presented with the good-looking collegians we expected: They're all meeting up at the house of Dana (Kristen Connolly) for a weekend off the grid, packing into an RV to head to a remote mountain retreat. Even before they make their debut, though, it's clear this is the right movie: There's no mistaking the familiar tone of producer and co-writer Joss Whedon's trademark witty banter in that opening scene.
From there, things proceed, on one level, exactly as expected: some quick expository banter in the RV to establish the characters, a stop at a run-down gas station that seems drawn equally from Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and eventual arrival at the cabin, shot to evoke the Evil Dead series.
In the basement of the house, during a game of truth or dare (of course), the gang find a collection of creepy trinkets, baubles, and assorted ephemera that looks like a horror-movie attic sale: sepia-toned photos of a long-dead family; a diary describing their violent past; blank-eyed porcelain dolls and puzzle boxes. Each one is a portent of bad things about to happen, which only the group's resident stoner conspiracy theorist, Marty (Whedon regular Fran Kranz) seems to realize.
The catch is that as this crew of slightly too-stereotypical archetypes goes through the horror movie motions, their every move is being monitored by Steve and Richard back at that facility, along with an army of supporting staffers and technicians, both observing and working to influence the proceedings. Nothing in this film is quite what it seems.
A horror-movie attic sale is, in essence, exactly what Cabin in the Woods is, an attempt to exorcise the genre of its formulaic possession by stuffing the movie full of its most overused and predictable elements ? and then dumping them through clever skewering.
It would be unfair to speak in any kind of detail about the precise nature of the interaction between the cabin and the observers, or about some of the crazy images that Goddard manages to put onscreen during the chaos of the film's completely insane climax. I will say that I was watching through tears of laughter flowing so freely that I probably didn't even catch the entire parade of the bizarre in that sequence.
But part of the pleasure of this movie ? one of a great many pleasures, as it's the most entertaining and satisfying horror movie I've seen in a long while ? is to see how that relationship unfolds, and to be completely surprised by those images. Goddard and Whedon have created a wonderful puzzle of a film that is loving in its appreciation of good horror, even as takes the genre (and its blood-lusty audience) to task for the unimaginative banality that has been too typical of recent scary movies.
There's a serious and smart critique here, and life-or-death stakes that only come from characters one genuinely cares about ? a neat trick, given that they're set up to be so generic. But Whedon, the creator of a vampire slayer named Buffy, has always excelled at clever one-liners set against backdrops of unspeakable and ancient evil. Goddard, in his first turn as director, matches the verbal wit with memorable visual set-pieces that are as hilarious as they are horrific.
It's true that the symbolic connections drawn here aren't exactly subtle, but subtlety in subtext has rarely been the prerogative of even the best horror. Neither is the movie particularly scary, but that's not the aim here either. Whedon and Goddard create a self-contained universe that plays by its own rules to serve its own critical agenda, and does so with smarts and skill.
For all of its intellectual pleasures, though, Cabin in the Woods is a visceral roller coaster of a movie at heart. And like the best thrill rides, when it's over, you just want to get back on and go again. (Recommended)