Cabin compellingly layers secrets, horror homages

Do not read detailed summaries; do not spoil the mystery before experiencing it.  The Cabin in the Woods is a film worthy of a trip to the theatre with a large group of friends for the delightful journey this comedic horror presents.

For those hoping to view a horror film delivering on the promised hype of terror, laughs, unpredictability and rather brilliant structure encased in a meta-textual homage to the genre, Cabin is a movie to experience organically in theatres. Co-written by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) and Drew Goddard (Lost), the film deviates from the recent string of “torture porn” movies that the horror genre has recently suffered from. Cabin manages to live up to the hyped-up promise of an incredibly entertaining and meta-referential horror plot encased in a clever and comedic tribute to the genre encased in a revolutionary tale that engages audiences. For fans aware of the well-deserved buzz surrounding the details of the film, believe what is said: This is one movie to be experienced with minimal prior knowledge spoiling the secrets.

The story involves five friends (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams) going away for a weekend in a remote cabin in the woods by a lake, and an equally appealing parallel narrative involving two men, Steve (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Bradley Whitford), working in a somewhat militaristic or governmental organization. While the former story is one clearly part of a horror story, the other is oddly humorous in the normal, mundane conversation between two ordinary employees in a normal, familiar workplace.

How are the two related to one another? The answer is not only, as promised, a secret that audiences won’t see coming, but also an enthralling sense of humor in this highly self-aware and layered film.

A discussion of the film is nearly impossible to achieve without spoiling the secrets it aptly hypes as unpredictable. Cabin begins and continues to turn secret upon secret into plot twists forming a continuous, elegantly-timed string of revelations. This is not a film where a sudden unexpected twist is revealed in the final stretch, validating the hypotheses of those guessing at its truth from the start. The directing debut from Goddard moves quickly in a thoroughly fluid and engaging manner that is generally difficult to achieve without coming across as tired or overdone.

The line between parodying a genre—particularly the horror genre in which classic narrative tools are widely over-used and the audience is generally aware of what awaits the characters—is tough to pull off. Cabin, however, manages to caricature the conventional elements of a horror film. Somehow it does so via a clearly affectionate and reverent nod to the horror genre, even as it unveils a uniquely poignant analysis of why horror is popular, important and appealing to audiences.

Cabin was shelved three years ago when MGM, the original studio, went bankrupt. The delayed release is caused by Chris Hemsworth’s youthful and less-Thor-like physique, though his appearance is appropriate for his role as one of the students in the woods. The other four students are essentially  there for sex appeal and provide horror victims, as is expected. The cast performs admirably, though. Fran Kranz, who was cast in Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse, is a significant crowd favorite with his witty commentary and stoner humor.