Like the seemingly generic location at the center of the movie The Cabin in the Woods has a purposefully familiar exterior. But it's a facade and in the film's first few minutes writer/director Drew Goddard draws back the curtain to unveil an innovative and unexpected world. The setup is simple: five twenty-somethings head for a vacation in a lone shack upstate but when they arrive things quickly take a turn for the worse. The run-of-the-mill supernatural antics aren't simply for our amusement — there's another force behind the scenes orchestrating the quintet's demise for a bigger purpose. The mystery behind those horror movie tropes is Cabin in the Woods's clever twist a riff that's wickedly funny and endlessly fulfilling.
The first people we meet in Cabin in the Woods aren't the soon-to-be-terrorized young folk but two technicians Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) who coordinate the Cabin's entertaining mischief. They're like employees pulled out of Office Space susceptible to the same droll ups and downs of any job —their gig just involves murdering co-eds. They sit in a control room orchestrating each piece of their plan with well-placed hurdles (cue the creaky door!) and rehearsed extras (enter: mysterious gas station owner). If that screams spoiler don't fret; the who the what the where and the why are all kept secret unraveling in parallel and commenting on the routine horror plotline.
Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon don't let the scary movie thread fall to the wayside painting their ensemble with colorful characters and great talent: despite being stunning creatures the perfect types for a serial killer to chase down with a a giant knife Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) are smart savvy and sharp (a tangible sign of Whedon's influence); Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and his buddy Holden (Jesse Williams) are big and brutish — but not without personality; and Marty (Fran Kranz)... loves weed. Only after they arrive at the cabin a whiff of pheromonal gas in the air do they transform into the archetypical horror characters. All according to plan.
Cabin in the Woods has its cake and eats it too simultaneously clicking as a terrifying horror film a cackle-worthy satire and a thought-provoking dissection of the genre. Alongside its send-up of the overplayed "cabin in the woods" mechanics are grander ideas. Why do we watch? Goddard evaluates every perspective but never in a didactic fashion. There's a fury of imagination in every scene every joke Goddard and Whedon's script taking every opportunity to push the concept to unanticipated places. Across the board all the actors are able to balance the unusual heightened realism with Hemsworth proving his knack for comedy and versatility as an up-and-comer.
Cabin in the Woods is non-stop fun from beginning to end concluding with a grand finale that no amount of spoilers could ever dilute. At SXSW I called Cabin "the most crowd-pleasing movie of all time" and while that may seem sensationalist I assure I'll be rewatching this one for a long time.
Years ago Jack Brooks (Trevor Matthews) watched helplessly as his family was massacred by a monster. Now eking out a living as a plumber and saddled with a harridan girlfriend (Rachel Skarsten) Jack is trying to deal with anger-management issues spawned by his tragic past--unaware that circumstances will soon force him to confront those issues. Those circumstances occur in the form of his night-school professor Gordon Crowley (Robert Englund) who has the serious misfortune of being possessed by an infernal evil--one that turns him into a voracious vicious monstrous fiend. (Gee has Englund been here before …?) What follows is a fast-paced fiendish battle to the death--and beyond--as Jack squares off against his former teacher in a giddy grisly fight to the finish. Matthews gives a very likable performance as the embittered hero who finds his niche (like the title says) as a slayer of monsters and Skarsten (in what amounts to an extended cameo) is appropriately amusingly bitchy as his self-absorbed girlfriend. There’s also a fun turn by David Fox as the cranky creaky proprietor of the hardware store that Jack frequents. But in the end this is Englund’s show all the way. Relying less on his status as a horror icon than his comedic abilities the actor gives a fabulously funny performance as the possessed professor. Not only is this Englund’s biggest and best role in a long time it’s a genuine testament to his versatility as an actor--without straying too far from his horror fan base. The actors are completely in tune with the farcical tone of the proceedings yet they play it wonderfully straight. This is director Jon Knautz’s feature debut and he makes the most of it. Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer straddles the fine line between fear and farce with refreshing confidence. The film pays homage to the ‘80s horror classics but possesses (no pun intended) an identity and a personality of its own. The film is also enhanced by the fine work of cinematographer Joshua Allen and composer Ryan Shore (nephew of Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore) and it’s nice to see a fantasy film that eschews CGI for good old-fashioned practical special effects. Some of them are intentionally cheesy but that’s all part of the film’s winning formula. That said and despite the film’s many laughs this is not a film for the squeamish. But for the intended audience of this film that’s even more inducement.