The Cabin in the Woods takes the overdone slasher flick formula, tears it down, and builds it back up into something that is at once both exciting and confusing. It's an enigma wrapped in an enigma, and ultimately, that makes it an exemplar for the modern horror film.
Co-written by Joss Whedon (who is soon to have the upcoming Avengers film under his belt), this movie starts out as something that seems, admittedly, like a boring rehash of your typical adolescent scare gimmicks: A bunch of teenagers plan a weekend getaway at a remote cabin. For each teen, all the formulaic checkboxes are filled: you've got the jock, the "bad girl," the "good girl"' the stoner, and the genuinely decent guy.
You think you know where this road leads, but we suddenly take a sharp left turn: Someone is watching these teenagers. No, it's not a big reality TV sort of thing, which is what the viewer might initially think.
Essentially, two interwoven plots take place simultaneously, and as this juxtaposition occurs, all the horror clichés are delightfully demolished and analyzed in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion.
When the zombies enter the picture, we begin to realize just how much black comedy and satire is going on here. But it doesn't begin and end with the walking dead. Other monsters come into the picture, and in a most creative and unlikely way.
References to iconic horror films like Hellraiser, Evil Dead, and Friday the 13th run rampant in this movie, and you can tell the actors and director are enjoying the ride, having just as much fun as the audience.
But somewhere along the lines, in this little film that is neither ambitious nor overtly serious, there is some kind of message present; something that makes the viewer think.
Concepts like exploitation, voyeurism, and apathy are examined. In fact, the final scene of the film comes across as very subtle commentary on the desensitization and carelessness of some modern American youth and young adults - essentially poking fun at a portion of its own audience.
But there's an important touch, even to that aspect: It forces one to rethink just what, artistically, a horror movie is, and plays with that thin line between entertainment and boredom. It explores a kind of cinematic wall: a figurative divider of sorts between form and content - and then promptly tears it down, merging the two elements to create a flick that actually gives something back to the audience.
That being said, "Cabin..." has its Achilles' heel, which is in the acting. Aside from the funny one-liners of Fran Kranz (who portrays the stoner), the rest of the cast is serviceable at best. Chris Hemsworth (the jock), while a great actor, is simply underused here.
You'd think a horror movie that wants to make some kind of statement (as it does so well) would also focus on putting some more emotional oomph into the roles of some of these teens, but it falls, at least partially, flat in that regard.
But the great thing is that you don't have to focus too much on that - there are so many other things going on, that the story doesn't really stop to breathe...and neither will the audience.
"The Cabin in the Woods" is a great film because it's going to change the face, at least in the short-term, of its genre. It's fun, it's surprisingly deep, and it never takes itself too seriously.
The movie is far from the masterpiece of the year, but it's one of the best horror trips we've seen in a long time.
"The Cabin in the Woods"
Directed by Drew Goddard
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly
Rated R, 95 mins.
Photo: A scene from "The Cabin in the Woods." Diyah Pera/AP and Lionsgate Films