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The Cabin in the Woods

At this point, everyone and their dog has heard the news that Joss Whedon has a new film coming out on May 4th. It’s only a ginormous summer tentpole spectacular with a huge amount of publicity from Hollywood and from fans. But how many people know that Joss Whedon had another film in the works that just hit theaters today?

The Cabin in the Woods was produced and co-written by Whedon, a man who surely needs no introduction to my fellow geeks. He wrote the film in collaboration with Drew Goddard, who’s probably best known for writing “Buffy,” “Alias,” “Lost,” and Cloverfield. He also got a cameo appearance as Fake Thomas Jefferson at the end of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Here, Goddard makes his feature directing debut.

Alas, this movie had a very turbulent time after it wrapped production in 2009. The film was supposed to be released back in 2010, until MGM — desperate to shore up revenue — delayed the film for post-conversion to 3D against the filmmakers’ wishes. But MGM declared bankruptcy before the film could be released, leaving it to keep company with The Hobbit, James Bond, and the Red Dawn remake in limbo. A year later, MGM had sold the film to Lionsgate, who arranged for the movie to finally be released. Mercifully, the 3D option appears to have been dropped.

This movie has been in the can for three years. All that time, it’s been the subject of intense scrutiny from Hollywood insiders, Whedon’s immense fanbase, and anyone remotely interested in MGM’s unfolding bankruptcy proceedings. The movie got an even higher profile when Chris Hemsworth — one of the film’s stars — hit it big in the title role of Thor. Yet despite spending so much time on so many radars, so much of it remained unknown. Somehow, this picture had managed to keep almost entirely under wraps. And thank the Ancient Ones for that.

I know that I usually save my “nutshell” review for the end, but I’m going to get it out of the way now: If you love horror movies, go see The Cabin in the Woods. If you hate horror movies, go see The Cabin in the Woods. If you love action, comedy, CGI spectacles, or creative premises that are masterfully executed, go see The Cabin in the Woods. No matter what kind of movie fan you are, I guarantee that you’ll find something to love here. As such, I highly recommend that you go see the film right now. But whether you see the film or not, please do us both one favor.

DO NOT READ ANOTHER SINGLE WORD ABOUT THIS FILM. Don’t look at any plot synopses, don’t watch any trailers, don’t go through any interviews, and don’t read any reviews. Make every possible effort to learn as little about this movie as you possibly can.

Naturally, I’m going to try writing this review with a minimum of spoilers as I usually do. But in discussing this film to any reasonable degree of detail, certain spoilers are almost impossible to avoid entirely. As such, if you’re already sold on seeing this movie, then I urge you to play it safe. Shut this browser window down now and go see the film for yourself ASAP.

Anyone who needs more convincing, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The basic premise of the film is a simple one. Five stupid young adults go out to a run-down cabin in the middle of nowhere, and a bloodbath ensues. There’s a lot going on around this premise, and that’s really what makes the film so special, but let’s stick with the more familiar aspects for now.

Naturally, all of the expected character archetypes are here. First and foremost is Dana, our innocent, (sorta-)virginal heroine played by Kristen Connolly. She’s shy at the beginning before finding the strength to fight back as the movie goes on, you know the type. And part of the reason why she’s going out to the forest is so her friends can set her up with someone. That “someone” is Holden, played by Jesse Williams. He’s intelligent, calm under pressure, your basic leading man. He’s also at least part-black, so there’s the minority quota taken care of.

Then of course, we have Dana’s best friend, Jules (Anna Hutchison). She’s the token sexpot, which is a role that Hutchison plays with scorching aplomb. Naturally, she’s dating Curt (Chris Hemsworth), who fills the role of “horny jock.”

That leaves two prominent characters left on the checklist. First is the “knowledgeable geek,” who’s become a requirement for any post-Scream horror film. Second is the pothead, an archetype almost as old as horror cinema itself. But here’s a twist: Both of these characters were merged into one. This was a brilliant move. He’s smart enough to see what’s going on around him, but he’s also dumb enough to constantly get stoned off his ass. So of course no one else believes him until it’s too late. It also helps that the character is played by Fran Kranz, who was easily one of the best things about “Dollhouse.” It’s a damn shame that he hasn’t been getting more work since that show went off the air, but it’s great to see him back on a screen to play another neurotic nerd.

Also, his character’s name is Marty. Remember that, it’s going to be relevant in an implicit way toward the end of the film.

So now that we’ve met our victims, what about our monsters? Well… what about them? Really, the villains are almost beside the point. Whether these idiots are going to get killed off by zombies, werewolves, vampires, or ghosts, the story is going to play itself out in exactly the same way. And this is something that the film explores in a brilliant and humorous way.

Instead of focusing on the monsters, the film prefers to focus on… well, for lack of a better spoiler-free phrase, we’ll call them a “Greek chorus.” These are people who watch the proceedings and comment on them, working as surrogates for everyone in the audience and behind the scenes. Additionally, they add a very mundane — almost bureaucratic — flavor to the proceedings, which contrasts against the ongoing slasher narrative in a wonderfully clever and humorous way. It’s also where the movie gets its biting satiric edge. The most prominent members among them are played by two very accomplished character actors named Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Another one is played by the beautiful Amy Acker, a Whedon favorite who doesn’t get nearly enough work.

Oh, and there’s a showstopping cameo near the end. No, I’m not saying anything about it.

As great as everything is in this movie — the effects, the score, the production design, and the actors are all superb — my favorite part about this film has to be the screenplay. Not only does the film offer sterling dialogue from Whedon, but the narrative is brilliantly paced. Every clue and every reveal is given out at the perfect time, and they’re all presented in ways that are humorous, scary, or otherwise entertaining to watch. There isn’t a single exposition dump in sight, which is quite an accomplishment for a premise this creative and a scope this huge.

I hate to end the blog entry here, but this is as much as I feel comfortable saying. I wish I could go into detail about how The Cabin in the Woods subverts audience expectations. I wish that I could share my interpretations of the ending. I wish that I could give my thoughts about that spectacular climax. I probably will at some point further down the line, but not right now.

Right now, more people need to see this movie. This means you. Don’t wait another second more than you have to, just see it.

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