(by Dustin Putman
"The Cabin in the Woods" may be the most difficult film to review this year. Every angle one wishes to discuss is an instant invitation for providing spoilers, even of the inadvertent variety, and yet this is one special cinematic experience that viewers would be wise to know as little about as possible walking in. The smashing directorial debut of Drew Goddard (writer of 2008's "Cloverfield" and TV's "Lost") and respective brainchild of he and co-scribe Joss Whedon (2000's "Titan A.E."), the film audaciously, at times awe-inspiringly, subverts, toys with and tramples upon every cliché and expectation that typically comes with a genre pic set in this one's foreboding title locale. Like a post-modern update of 1987's "Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn" as masterminded by a Lovecraft-obsessed existentialist who has set out to make the ultimate horror movie to end all horror movies, "The Cabin in the Woods" is blackly comic, thrillingly creepy, and then something wholly transcendent. Article continues below
In order to not give anything major away plot-wise, all that can be described is what happens in the first act. Following that, all bets are off for anyone who thinks they know where things are headed. Five college friends—semi-virginal good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly), intellectual Holden (Jesse Williams), jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), newly blonde sexpot Jules (Anna Hutchison), and faithful stoner Marty (Fran Kranz)—set out for a weekend getaway to Curt's cousin's rustic, secluded cabin, without a clue that they are being tracked by shady men in business attire who are keeping surveillance on them. On their way, the kids stop for gas, ignoring the harbingers of doom spouted off by the kooky attendant (Tim De Zarn) before continuing to their middle-of-nowhere destination. The cabin has its eccentricities—there are violent old paintings on the wall and a one-way mirror separating two bedrooms—but they're not about to let this ruin their fun. The deadly forces they've just released from reading a Latin incantation in a diary they've found in the cellar will do that for them.
The pleasure of each new surprise and ingenious discovery in "The Cabin in the Woods" is possibly the biggest treat of this year's still relatively young cinematic landscape. The film is undoubtedly 2012's most giddily imaginative, so fresh and different as to not only be groundbreaking, but also transformative. If 1996's "Scream" made audiences self-aware of slasher tropes, commenting upon them even as they were carried out, "The Cabin in the Woods" does something very similar, then goes another step toward true meta-toppling clarity. To not be able to talk about the film but in general terms is to give those possible viewers on the fence about seeing it the wrong impression. This is not your ordinary, everyday splatter flick about stupid young people going into the woods and getting killed. Well, yeah, there is a little of that, but the characters are attractively defined, likable as they move beyond archetypes, and the places the movie goes are unlike anywhere a picture of this sort has dared go, or been smart enough to think about going, before.
The screenplay, expertly weaving together interconnected tales—that of the imperiled friends at the cabin, and two veteran colleagues, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), manning a mysterious control center—is superb in the way that it does not try to fool the viewer, or stack all its cards on a single twist of some kind. Instead, it lays the players out on the table by the five-minute mark and then gradually but surely builds and builds throughout as mounting revelations lead to a phantasmagoric climax powerful and savvy enough to turn everyone watching it into a kid again. The very act of seeing it unfold might have some viewers in disbelief. Before this final twenty minutes of immeasurable creepy-crawly fun—leading, it should be noted, to an unexpectedly poignant ending that considers the fleeting state of one's mortality—director Drew Goddard has a field day mounting tension in the face of perverse laughs, and vice versa. A scene where Jules is dared to make out with the head of a wolf mounted on the wall is one of the film's scariest, most cringe-inducing moments, irregardless if the sharp-toothed creature comes to life to bite her head off or not. It's the anticipation of wicked things this way coming that are sometimes more effective than the payoff, anyway. P.S. The zinger is that Goddard knows his payoff is a one hundred percent bull's-eye.
"The Cabin the Woods" has been a long time coming. Shot in early 2009 and originally scheduled for theaters in February 2010, distributor MGM ultimately had no choice but to sell off their unreleased titles after filing for bankruptcy. Then there was the flirtation with needlessly converting it into 3-D, an idea that Goddard and Whedon smartly fought against. At long last, the film was eventually bought by Lionsgate. Not only that, but the studio believed in the project so much that here the movie is three years later, with a full marketing and promotional push behind it as it gets ready to take thousands of multiplex screens by storm without a single frame of footage being altered from the original version. The wait was worth it and, one has to think, kind of serendipitous. Unabashedly unique and terrifically acted—Kristen Connolly (2008's "The Happening") and newcomer Anna Hutchison are equally eye-catching as Dana and Jules, while Chris Hemsworth has famously gone on to make a mark in 2011's "Thor"—"The Cabin in the Woods" is an outright blast while still having more on its mind than just a body count. A motion picture about the endurance of horror as a historical watermark, where it has been, and where it might be able to go from here, it's no less than an all-encompassing celebration of a too often spit-upon genre. Fans will be savoring this one for decades to come.