‘Cabin in the Woods’ reinvents horror

Rating: ★★★★★ 

A word of caution, don’t watch the trailer for this movie before going to see it. Try to avoid reviews as well, as many are filled with spoilers. “Cabin in the Woods” is best viewed with no prior knowledge of what you’re in for.

It is the brainchild of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, two writers known for their detailed examination of the horror genre. Whedon deconstructed countless horror tropes with his famous cult-classic series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Goddard wrote “Cloverfield” which although not without its problems, took a notably unique look at giant monster movies. With this team, you know you’re in for something special.

This movie tells the story of five teenagers who set out for a fun weekend in a cabin in the woods. As can be expected of a horror film, things then proceed to go horribly wrong. While this is where the plot summary for most conventional horror films would end, it has barely scratched the surface of all that there is to be found in “Cabin in the Woods.”

It is a somewhat complex movie and is equal parts love letter as well as hate mail aimed at modern horror flicks. “Cabin in the Woods” throws a myriad of horror staples at the audience and cleverly tears each one apart.

Especially notable is its attack on the formulaic nature of horror films, which all too often simply consist of grabbing a handful of characters and then throwing a monster at them. One scene in particular towards the end of the film is almost heavy-handed in its bashing of this formula. Luckily, it is done with such gleeful abandon that the blow is somewhat softened.

While at times “Cabin in the Woods” can seem almost scathing in its criticism of the genre, it also illustrates how horror movies can rise above their own genre conventions and be a genuinely fresh and interesting experience. It does this in a variety of ways, but the most notable are its complex characters and well crafted scares.

“Cabin in the Woods” presents the audience with a somewhat basic lineup of characters: Curt, the knuckleheaded jock (Chris Hemsworth); Dana, the innocent virgin (Kristen Connolly); Marty, the goofy stoner (Fran Kranz); Jules, the flirty ditz (Anna Hutchison), and Holden, the dignified scholar (Jesse Williams).

If these characters are starting to sound familiar, it’s because they are. Each one represents, on the surface, a stock character in horror cinema. But “Cabin in the Woods” proceeds to subvert these stock characters wonderfully. Curt is actually an honor-roll sociology major, Marty is often more clear-headed than his companions, and Dana isn’t so innocent.

In this subversion and the aid of Whedon’s snappy dialogue the characters become more than cardboard cutouts. They become actual people that the audience genuinely comes to care about, which makes it all the more interesting when the bodies begin to pile up.

“Cabin in the Woods” also does something few horror films have in recent years: it sets up its scares. Much in the way comedy can consist either of clearly defined jokes that have a set up and a punchline or just a series of funny things that happen (like people farting), horror has two primary forms of scares.

The jump scares, which typically consist of something popping out and yelling “Boo!” are the most common. The other type consists of the horror of inevitability. Knowing that something terrible is going to happen and being powerless to prevent it. These are much rarer and much more difficult to do well.

While “Cabin in the Woods” does have its fair share of jump scares, it also knows how to handle scares that deal with inevitability. There’s a scene about halfway through the film that consists of about two minutes of knowing a character is going to die and being absolutely powerless to stop it. Even more brutal, it’s played entirely straight as a heroic moment, with only the audience knowing what’s going to happen.

Even the movie’s jump scares are handled well. There’s clear foreshadowing and buildup for many of these moments, as opposed to how they normally play out as just feeling like moments where the writer decided the audience hadn’t been startled in a while.

Whedon and Goddard’s writing at times sacrifices true terror for comedy, but the writing is so well done that it is an acceptable trade-off. The character of Marty is especially show-stealing, with memorable lines such as “do not read the freakin’ Latin!” that horror movie audiences have been shouting for years.

“Cabin in the Woods” is not for everyone. Those who universally despise horror films will shrug and miss the point, as will those who prefer to simply mentally check-out at the movies. However, for everyone else, consider this required viewing.