'The Cabin in the Woods' satisfies viewers with suspense

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Kristen Connolly has a terrifying moment in “The Cabin in the Woods.” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate).

Editor’s note: “The Cabin in the Woods” is a movie best seen with little to no knowledge of its contents going in. With that in mind, this review will be as spoiler-free as possible.

There’s something underrated about going into a movie completely unspoiled, and in today’s world of instant-delivery culture, it’s hard to see a film where you truly know nothing about it ahead of time. “The Cabin in the Woods” is best if you’re completely unaware of what you’re getting into, and I was lucky enough to sit down to the film’s SXSW screening without having seen a single frame of footage. If you want to have the best possible experience with “The Cabin in the Woods,” save reading too many reviews until after you see the film, which is pretty brilliant both as an exercise in the horror genre and a deconstruction of its most basic elements. We’ll be keeping spoilers light here.

“Cabin” deals with a group of stereotypical college students heading to, you guessed it, a cabin in the middle of some particularly menacing woods. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play employees for a company whose future relies on the backwoods goings-on in a very specific way. Once things start to go south, as they inevitably do in this type of film, we start to understand how these two plotlines are related, and as they start to converge, “Cabin” becomes more and more insane in a spectacularly gory, entertaining fashion.

Fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Lost” know that writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who makes an adept directorial debut here) are very good with genre fare, but “The Cabin in the Woods” is a huge departure for both of them. “Buffy” was mostly concerned with finding parallels between supernatural horrors and high school drama, while “Lost” told nakedly human, emotional stories on a sci-fi backdrop, but the way “Cabin” approaches the horror genre is akin to the way Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” dissects the Western. “Cabin” finds joy in the construction and destruction of its own conventions and invokes a lot of classical horror imagery in its storytelling.

Goddard assembled a strong, mostly under-the-radar cast for his lambs to the backwoods slaughter here. It’s interesting that, even though “Cabin” was filmed back in 2009, most of the cast remains unknown. The obvious exception to that is Chris Hemsworth, now better known as Thor, and he plays his letter jacket-sporting jock with surprising intelligence and kindness. It’s hard not to be charmed by Kristen Connolly as the film’s heroine, and the disarmingly funny Anna Hutchison is more than game to be objectified by Goddard’s lens. Die-hard Whedon fans may remember Fran Kranz as the most likeable part of “Dollhouse,” and he carries that honor here as well, as a stoner who starts to grasp the unfortunate situation the gang is in just before all hell breaks loose.

If there’s one complaint to lodge with “The Cabin in the Woods,” it’s that the film isn’t particularly scary. There’s no denying that it’s clever and engaging and even surprisingly introspective. The film certainly manages to build legitimate tension here and there, but any consistent sense of terror is mostly undercut by the way the film approaches its concept.

Even so, that doesn’t make it any less entertaining, and many of “Cabin’s” scariest beats are in its third act, which makes a left turn that’s best described as absolutely daffy. The film’s closing moments have some absolutely irresistible imagery; there’s one shot in particular that attempts to cram the entire horror genre into one indelible frame. The level of detail and ambition present would be stunning if you weren’t busy being blindsided by the onslaught of carnage.

Fans of horror will find plenty to appreciate in “The Cabin in the Woods.” The film’s concept isn’t at all what you’re expecting, and it makes a convincing case for the vitality and entertainment value of its own genre. Even on a less intellectual level, “Cabin” is undeniably effective, simply because it’s so fun to watch the characters stumble their way through their hopeless situation. Then the third act rolls around, “The Cabin in the Woods” puts all its cards on the table and guarantees itself a spot in any worthwhile discussion of horror cinema for years to come.

Published on Friday, April 13, 2012 as: 'Cabin' presents plot twists, suspense as introspective horror