With a title like The Cabin in the Woods, there's not much marketing to do for the film, except to stand at the box-office counter and welcome horror fans with open arms. Still, there are two kinds of horror fans to welcome: The ones who are just fine with watching movies of the genre for fun, and the ones who carry with them a baggage (of horror history knowledge) to the theatre.
It's the latter who would be most satisfied with this fresh and inventive meta-effort by writer-director Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield, 2008), and co-written by Joss Whedon (The Avengers, 2012).
I say it's a meta-effort because The Cabin in the Woods is the most self-aware horror film since Wes Craven's Scream (1996). It deconstructs the genre, specifically the sub-genre of 'cabin movies', and gives us the sole reason for its existence.
And by golly, the reason is shockingly clever.
The setup is standard: Five young adults take a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life, travel into the woods where an unoccupied cabin lies. Planning to relax there for the weekend, these folks find themselves forced to switch to survival mode way too soon.
In a superb balancing act between horror and comedy, The Cabin in the Woods is best appreciated not on a visceral level, but on an intellectual level. With references to a glut of horror films from Sam Raimi's infamous 'cabin movie' The Evil Dead (1981) to George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), to even the blood-soaked theatrical trailer of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), Goddard's film will wet the pants of horror geeks as they make sense of what occurs on screen.
Bit by bit, the film reveals small "twists", yet they only prepare us for the ultimate truth that literally turns the genre inside out.
One could sense something special (or cheeky) about The Cabin in the Woods in the prologue - a seemingly unrelated sequence with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford going through the motions of their daily work, only to catch us unawares at our 'most vulnerable moment'.
As the plot progresses, the ominous mood is built, creating some intense situations driven by the fear of the unknown. There are sudden tonal shifts that are intentionally jarring as the film cuts from a dark, dingy cabin to a bright, clinical control room. The risk is that these tonal shifts don't work. The truth is that they do, at least in service to the film's dual nature.
The 'dual nature' I'm referring to is the film's largely successful attempt to be hilarious and scary, if not at the same time, then one after another in a horror-comedy-hormedy cycle that excellently complements its onion narrative, in which layer after layer is peeled to reveal the secret to the 'cabin in the woods'.
Viewers who have firm expectations of what or how the film will be like are likely to be disappointed, and see it as an elaborate joke lasting 100 minutes, when in all honesty, the joke is actually on them. The Cabin in the Woods is not a masterpiece, but it's the most fun you'll have in the theaters before the summer blockbusters arrive in full force.