Here’s what you need to know about the new horror movie from Joss Whedon and his Mutant Enemy Productions sidekick Drew Goddard: There’s a cabin. It’s in the woods. Five college kids arrive there to spend a lazy weekend. One of them is Thor. They drink some beer and go for a swim in the lake; one of them smokes a lot of pot. And then really bad things start to happen.
Fans of Whedon are fond of repeating the mantra “In Joss we trust” — and with good reason. Creator of The Best Show Ever to Grace Network TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and poised to deliver a giant nerdgasm to besotted comic book lovers next month with The Avengers, Whedon never disappoints. Never. Whether he’s got Neil Patrick Harris belting out a showstopper in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or Nathan Fillion evading space cannibals in Serenity (the film version of Whedon’s short-lived but beloved series Firefly) or the entire cast of the underappreciated Dollhouse blowing viewers’ minds before every commercial break, Whedon always delivers whatever he’s intent on delivering: thrills, laughs, surprises, tears, even memorable melodies.
The Cabin in the Woods is no different, and like his other work, it showcases one of Whedon’s greatest strengths: his ability to take previously disrespected genres — in this case the slasher film — and turn them inside-out and upside-down and every which way but loose. He has covered similar ground by taking the ubiquitous blond victim out of the horror genre and turning her into a superhero — and then writing her a musical. He not only busts genres, he reinvents them.
Now make no mistake: Cabin is a gloriously blood-soaked movie, offering up buckets of gore and a twisted arsenal of gruesome instruments of torture, including one disturbing piece of equipment that looks like a bear trap on a chain. Characters on the receiving end of its teeth tend to writhe and howl in agony, and the squeamish will no doubt need to look away. But Cabin is never cheap or simple, nor is it exploitive in its use of violence. It’s directed by horror movie veteran Goddard (an Angel/Buffy alum who also wrote the screenplay for Cloverfield) with wit and style, and he’s absolutely fearless about pushing the action over the top. And yet, ever present in the film is the intriguing acknowledgement that though people faced with too much depravity may eventually become immune to it, human suffering always matters — and always comes at a high cost.
The film is also surprisingly funny, too, thanks to the clever screenplay by Whedon and Goddard and two excellent performances from Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) as a stoner suffering from a bout of well-directed paranoia and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) doing what he does better than just about anyone (playing a wiseass in a suit). Slasher movies usually add a dash of comic relief, but in Cabin the humor is as important as the body count. These guys know what they’re doing here. The Avengers will be the biggest stage Whedon has ever had. But in the meantime, The Cabin in the Woods is a delightfully ghastly little reminder of how the minds of Mutant Enemy work.
Cast: Kristen Connelly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Anne Hutchinson, Jesse Williams, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker.
Director: Drew Goddard.
Screenwriters: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard.
Producer: Joss Whedon.
A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. Strong, bloody violence and gore, language, drug use, some sexuality and nudity. Opens Friday April 13 at area theaters.