If its geek pedigree isn't enough to tip you off that The Cabin in the Woods isn't your typical slasher movie, it should become clear within the first few minutes that co-writers Drew Goddard (who also directs) and Joss Whedon have something else in mind for their pre-apocalyptic twist on The Evil Dead.
In some ways, Goddard (who came up under J.J. Abrams, writing the underrated Cloverfield and episodes of Lost) and Whedon (the Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind and director of the upcoming Avengers) have covered this territory before. But The Cabin in the Woods — which sat on the shelf for a couple of years, through no fault of its own; the original studio was fighting bankruptcy — remixes their playlists into an entirely new spin.
The setup is familiar: Five college kids — led by jock Chris Hemsworth, who plays the God of Thunder in Thor and The Avengers — spend a weekend at an old summer house tucked deep in redneck country doing everything you expect them to. They drink, they flirt, they get high, and they explore the creepy basement, where they find a diary with an old Latin inscription. You know what happens next.
Or do you? The Cabin in the Woods spends a great deal of time lining up horror-movie conventions, only to smack them down. There's plenty of gore here, as the kids — each archetype is represented, from the slut to the stoner — are picked off one by one by rusty-weapon-wielding hillbilly zombies. But something else is going on here, and that's where the movie gets interesting.
In the very first scene, we see two guys in rumpled shirts and ties working in an underground lab on some sort of controlled experiment. It isn't long before we have an idea about what's happening. It's up to Goddard and Whedon to sell the rest, and they mostly do, making one of the most unconventional, self-conscious, and all-around enjoyable horror movies in recent years.
That's not to say there aren't some genuine scares along the way. Goddard and Whedon are disciples and students of the genre and its clichés. They're also fans. Like Scream, The Cabin in the Woods pulls together what you expect to see in a movie like this and piles it all on until there's no more room for another slasher-pic guidepost to lead you this way or that. And then it takes you in a completely different direction.
The movie occasionally gets caught up in its own cleverness — not so surprising, considering Lost and Buffy alums are involved. Goddard and Whedon don't stop until their little shop of horrors opens the doors, literally, to its biggest surprises. When all hell breaks loose, the filmmakers indulge in every monster-movie fantasy they've ever had. It's bloody. And it's a bloody good time.