Pretty college couple jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth, "Thor") and sexpot Jules (Anna Hutchison) bring along their buddies virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly, TV's 'Guiding Light,' 'As the World Turns'), studious Holden (Jesse Williams, TV's 'Grey's Anatomy') and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz, TV's 'Dollhouse') to take advantage of Curt's cousin's offer to weekend in "The Cabin in the Woods."
Cowriter (with 'Buffy/Firefly' producer Joss Whedon)/director Drew Goddard (producer/writer of TV's 'Lost,' "Cloverfield") made his directorial debut with this film three years ago only to see it hang in limbo because of studio MGM's bankruptcy. Now released by Lionsgate, the meta-meta horror film has benefitted from tons of buzz from the SXSW film festival which may actually hurt it in the long run. "The Cabin in the Woods" is fun and meta-aware, but hardly original - it's like the Scooby Doo group entered an Evil Dead/Chainsaw mashup via The Truman Show and "Scream" already ran with the concept. This one's more like "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" with a bigger budget but a similarly limp finale.
The filmmakers let us in on their twist from the get go as we're introduced to Sitterson (Richard Jenkins, "Step Brothers," "Let Me In") and Hadley (Bradley Whitford, TV's 'The West Wing,' 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip') entering their bunker-like work environment and telling their lab-coated assistant Lin (Amy Acker, TV's 'Dollhouse,' an exposition target) that they 'haven't had a glitch since '98.' Meanwhile, the college kids assemble and get on the road, first establishing the now de rigeur lack of cell phone reception before stopping at the quintessential run down gas station with the creepy, inhospitable owner (Tim De Zarn) who issues a warning obvious to the audience but over the heads of its intended recipients. As the five drive through a tunnel on a mountain pass, we see an eagle disintegrate as it hits an invisible grid that dissects the location. The cabin is just the type usually found in this type of film, except that Holden discovers the mirror in his room is a two-way into Dana's and he nobly alerts her to this just before she disrobes.
Back in the bunker, an office pool has been initiated, some participating with glee, others clearly thinking the wagering is sick. We're still not sure what's going on, but the kids in the cabin are under surveillance here and it's called a control room for a reason. In fact, Sitterson and Hadley discuss free will and the fact that the 'game' is rigged, but note that 'if they don't transgress, they can't be punished.' And so, when a game of truth or dare commences in the cabin, we begin with titillation (Jules is dared to make out with the mounted head of a wolf, a cute come-on by the filmmakers) that turns to terror when Dana is dared to check out the cellar, revealed when 'the wind' blows open its trap door.
The cellar is a virtual treasure trove of the type of paraphernalia one shouldn't mess with in these types of places. There are creepy dolls, a conch shell, a music box with ballerina, a spherical puzzle, a bridal gown and old timey pictures of some real backwoods types complete with the daughter's hair raising diary. As everyone checks out various objects, Dana begins to read, and yes, despite Marty's warning, says that line in Latin aloud. In no time at all, Chris and Jules are heading out for some open air sex and the bodies begin to pile up. But Marty's incessant pot smoking (he has a giant bong which collapses into a travel mug) gives him a special awareness even before he finds the camera hidden in a lamp and his observations on his own friends' behavior puts things into amusing context.
But most of the movie's clever bits all lie with Jenkins and Whitford as Whedon and Goddard bleed out little tidbits of just what they're up to over the course of the film. When we learn what that pool was all about (won by maintenance and the new intern!), the complaints of Whitford's Hadley have an awful lot of merit. A global perspective is given on monitors that horror buffs will appreciate, especially when Kyoto fails to get the job done. The best part of the climax is that the filmmakers throw more of this experience at us and spotting all the references will be even more fun on DVD.
The film is self-referential enough to actually name a character Truman (Brian White, TV's 'Men of a Certain Age') and he declares that it is imperative to keep the customer satisfied. It is the revelation of 'the customer' that this all hangs on and it's a major letdown. If only the technology existed to turn the movie screen into a reflective surface - now *that* would have worked, like Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" played for actual comedy.
Robin gives "The Cabin in the Woods" a C.
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