Review: ‘Cabin in the Woods’ is good not-so-scary fun

If you’ve read anything at all about “The Cabin in the Woods,” you know you shouldn’t be reading anything about “The Cabin in the Woods” before you see it.

That makes it an unusually difficult film to review. Drew McWeeny already shared his terrific take when the film opened the SXSW Film Festival. Now that it’s hitting theaters — finally! It was shot in 2009 and spent years on the shelf as a prisoner of MGM’s financial struggles — we’re offering a second look.

First, another warning: I’m not going to spoil anything major here, but if you’re cautious about going in to the movie knowing as little as possible, stop reading and go. Part of what makes “Cabin” such a unique experience — one well worth taking the time to see in a theater — is how well it uses the element of surprise to its advantage. “If you think you know this story, think again,” is the tagline. They’re not kidding.

The set-up is intentionally cliché. Five college friends — sweet redhead Dana (Kristen Connolly), smart jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), sensitive dreamboat Holden (Jesse Williams), blonde bombshell Jules (Anna Hutchison) and sarcastic stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) — head out on a weekend trip to a spooky cabin in the woods. They’re in the middle of nowhere, the closest human being is the creepy and vaguely menacing owner of a rundown gas station, and the cabin decor (a one-way mirror between two bedrooms, portraits of gore and mutilation) suggests interior design by Hannibal Lecter. So obviously one of the first things they do is change into swimsuits and jump in the nearby lake.

You know you’re watching a horror movie, and you know some of these characters are going to die. They should know it too (but only Marty is remotely suspicious), and that’s the point. “Cabin” wants to take the meta-horror of “Scream” to another level and play around with the conventions passed down by several decades worth of slasher horror.

The masterminds behind this movie — director Drew Goddard and his co-screenwriter Joss Whedon — worked together on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” and the same mix of comedy, drama, horror and action that defined those shows so brilliantly is all over “Cabin.” With just a few minor alterations you could easily imagine “Buffy’s” Scooby Gang in this story. I can’t think of a higher compliment for a horror comedy intent on giving its audience a ridiculously fun time.

And “Cabin” is really, really fun.

But here’s my minor quibble: All the fun gets in the way of the scares. The deliberately flat characters never really popped for me, and I didn’t particularly care if they lived or died. I also didn’t find the killers at the cabin (I won’t reveal who or what they are) very compelling or creatively executed. (Although, on balance, that’s an extremely minor issue.)
The continually winking jokiness of the ever-shifting plot keeps “Cabin” humming right along without really building the intensity or suspense that marks the best horror filmmaking. The kind of intensity that will hopefully be seen on screen this year if film festival favorites “The Loved Ones” and “You’re Next” are actually released as scheduled.

“Scream” made fun of slasher movies, but it was also a brutal and vivid viewing experience. The opening sequence with Drew Barrymore’s Casey still wears me out when I watch it today, and I want Neve Campbell’s Sidney to fight her way to survival every time. “Cabin’s” Dana is a fine enough heroine — and Connolly is an unassuming beauty in the mold of Whedon women like Felicia Day, Alyson Hannigan or a less curvy Christina Hendricks (who guest starred in an episode of “Firefly”) — but in a movie that admirably aspires to become one of the all time greats, I wish she was at least a little more interesting.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are also in the cast, in very important roles. In fact, they’re the first people we see. I don’t want to say anything about their characters, but I will mention that there’s a dumb, Eli Roth kind of direction they could’ve gone with these guys, and thankfully no one involved wanted to do that.

On the other hand, there’s a “surprise” celebrity cameo that’s less surprising than it probably should be because of how the character is first revealed. And the potentially shocking death of another character is undermined by something we’ve already seen, and know is going to happen.

I don’t think any of this will really matter to horror fans primed to embrace such a cool, creative and oddly delightful concoction. Goddard has done a pretty fantastic job for a first-time filmmaker, and there is a lot of memorable imagery here. Director of photography Peter Deming shot all the “Scream” sequels, “Mulholland Dr.” and “Drag Me to Hell,” and clearly became an invaluable part of the team.

And the film’s emphasis on comedy over relentless tension may actually help broaden the audience beyond the usual genre crowd. Like “Evil Dead 2,” “Cabin” will be a great movie for teens to watch at sleepovers. A fine choice for date night that won’t leave anyone quaking in fear after the credits roll.

It’s a wild ride. Don’t be afraid to see where it takes you.

“The Cabin in the Woods” opens in theaters April 13