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The Cabin in the Woods 

★★★★ 1/2

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Kristen Connolly, Jesse Williams, Anna Hutchison and Fran Kranz. Written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. Directed by Drew Goddard.

Sweet Jesus, is it a relief to see a horror flick as surprising, smart and subversive as The Cabin In the Woods. In a world of Saws, Human Centipedes and remakes of every great horror-ish film from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to fucking Straw Dogs, for God's sake, mainstream horror has been particularly lacking for remarkable original work for a good decade or two now. Of course, Wes Craven's Scream films have nerdily played with horror-movie rules to entertaining effect, but Cabin takes that approach one step further. The film digs into where those rules come from in the first place, and why they fascinate us—and lest you start to think this is mostly a cerebral experience, rest assured that the film is also shocking, funny and, yes, spine-tingling.

The film's main characters are a thoroughly archetypal horror-movie bunch: a jock (Hemsworth), a slut (Hutchison), a nerd (Williams), a stoner (Kranz) and a virgin (Connolly). This group of improbable buddies sets out for a weekend at a remote cabin. You already know what's going to happen: it's not long before these kids do some dumb shit that puts their lives at risk, courtesy of gruesome baddies. The initial twist here (which feels almost like a spoiler, but you'll learn it within the first few minutes of the movie, or if you watch the trailer) is that Cabin's other main characters—two blue-collar technicians (Whitford and Jenkins)—are remotely manipulating the whole scenario. And these guys aren't some deviant serial killers; this is just their day job.

You'll get no more spoilers from me—again, revealing the Whitford and Jenkins characters' roles seems almost like a giveaway itself—but it's a credit to the film's ingeniousness that there's a clever plot twist within the first ten minutes. It just gets wilder from there, with a series of jaw-dropping moments that cleverly nod to horror-movie history and the motivations that draw us back to these kind of stories again and again. Writers Goddard (Cloverfield) and Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Serenity) have both thoroughly proven their talent for wittily bending genre rules before, and both rise to brilliant new heights with Cabin. (Goddard also deserves props for an excellent directorial debut here.)

Although the script's high-wire antics tend to draw attention from everything else, the film would be much less without its fine cast. All the young actors in the cabin make an impression with what could have been more disposable characters; Connolly in particular makes a warm and likeable heroine-of-sorts, and Kranz brings fine comedic timing to the stoner archetype. Jenkins and Whitford—both workhorse performers with a gift for brightening lesser fare than this—also have great sarcastic interplay as the working stiffs pulling the strings.

As a guy who sees and analyzes way too many movies, it's relatively difficult for these things to truly move me, or especially surprise me. So it's another credit to the film's smarts and all-around balls that I found myself repeatedly in a state of genuine shock and awe, especially during the insane third act. And in the midst of all this twisty spectacle, Goddard and Whedon also create a slyly damning commentary on modern horror movies, their audiences and their creators. Perhaps the scariest thing about The Cabin In the Woods is that at times, you'll find yourself identifying with the guys orchestrating the violence and terror behind the scenes. I know I did. —Patrick Dunn



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