How much should you know about The Cabin in the Woods before you see it? Ideally, nothing-- so if you click away from this review now, I understand. But interest is high enough in the horror film from first-time director Drew Goddard and his co-writer, Joss Whedon, that plenty of people have already seen the trailer, in which we're told explicitly that this story of college kids in a creepy cabin has quite the twist, and that the generic title gives way to a complete deconstruction of the horror genre. Believe it or not, it's OK to know that-- that's the premise of the film, not a spoiler.
But from that premise The Cabin in the Woods sets up a high-energy and electric game of chess with its audience, setting up every trope of its creepy-house genre, tearing it apart, and then going even deeper into a central mystery that only gets more satisfying as it goes. Goddard and Whedon's script functions both as a haunted-house movie-- there are great moments of tension throughout-- and a spirited romp right past the genre, held together by an impeccable sense of humor and a constant ability to surprise. The central characters aren't quite as interesting as they ought to be, and the story wraps up with a little more whimper than bang, but those are minor tradeoffs for a movie that's otherwise such a ball.
Even when the story sticks firmly in standard horror territory, this particular group of attractive kids is especially fun to spend time with. Our bookish heroine (Kristen Connolly) sets up a nice rapport with her blond bestie (Anna Hutchison), who in turn quickly establishes a believable relationship with her jock boyfriend (Chris Hemsworth). Add in a bookish guy love interest (Jesse Williams) and a stoner dork (Fran Kranz) and you've got a deliberate assortment of horror movie stereotypes, but the actors commit nicely even as Goddard and Whedon's clever writing pushes it all just over the edge into satire.
What happens from there? You'll have to see it, and you really have to see it if you love horror, hate horror, or have any interest in seeing how the genre can function as a playground for something completely fresh. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are involved, though in roles that are more fun to discover as you go along-- they do get a lot of the best jokes, though, and their scenes show a lot of Goddard's skill in handling the rhythm of a scene. He does plenty of showing off elsewhere, though, making a really elegant transition from writer to director by handling the narrative of every scene, dishing out scares and laughs and even dramatic heft by knowing where to take the audience at every turn.
The Cabin in the Woods is a genre exercise at heart, and though it has the potential for real greatness-- at certain points you might think Goddard could take this story anywhere-- it settles for ultimate audience satisfaction, which is pretty close to greatness anyway. It's so, so much fun to watch with an audience-- any audience, anywhere-- and to revel in that experience of being perfectly manipulated by a director and writer who know every button to push.