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Review: 'Cabin in the Woods' is sheer horror heaven

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Fri April 13, 2012
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A "Cabin in the Woods" offers a new twist on the old genre of horror films.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Cabin in the Woods'" is directed by Drew Goddard and co-written by Joss Whedon
  • The movie offers quite a few twists and turns on the horror genre
  • Critic: The film doesn't just keep us on our toes, it chops them off

(CNN) -- If you go down to the "Woods" today, you're sure of a big surprise -- and if anyone tries to spoil it, my advice would be to shut them up quick.

Believe me, you don't want to know. But this is a movie people are going to need to talk about, so if you're at all invested in horror movies -- what they are, what they're for, what they can be -- you best see this one quick, and steer clear of Tumblr until you have.

What can I tell you without saying too much?

For starters, you have to know that this is the first feature directed by Drew Goddard, a writer from the "Buffy," "Angel," "Lost" school, based on a screenplay he co-wrote with the considerably famous "Buffy", "Firefly", "Angel" creator Joss Whedon. Fans of those shows won't be disappointed by these horror hipsters' acidic, postmodern designs on one of the movie industry's hoariest, least respected staples. Whedon also wrote "Toy Story" of course -- which may be why the wild, nutso finale seems to owe a debt to another Pixar movie ... but let's not go there.

The outline is as crude as the title suggests: Hollywood has been telling us to be afraid of the backwoods at least since "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and "Deliverance" (before that, it was the old dark manse on the hill). By now the homespun log cabin is more likely to evoke the evil undead than Honest Abe. But just as the clever poster image puts its own twist on the familiar picture, transforming the house into a kind of spinning Rubik's Cube, Goddard's movie quickly puts its own distinctive kink on horror clich├ęs.

By quickly, I mean from the very first scene, which wittily undercuts the portentous opening music and sets up the movie's first puzzle: how do the casually smug, cynical lab-coated technicians played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins relate to the five bright, sexy college kids we see taking off for a cousin's countryside retreat? You could probably figure it out: there are only so many permutations available after all. But then again, you would probably be wrong. "The Cabin in the Woods" doesn't just keep us on our toes, it chops them off at the knee with a rusty scythe.

How spoiler culture (mostly) spared 'The Cabin in the Woods'

Goddard winks at horror's soiled conventions, but doesn't denigrate his characters by resorting to camp (well, except perhaps in the scary fundamentalist redneck the kids encounter when they try to buy gas). One of the questions he wants to explore is how much free will we want to see in a human sacrifice. Or put it another way: If you give a puppet enough rope, will he hang himself?

Thus, Kristen Connolly's sympathetic Dana -- not quite a virgin, but clearly the designated "good girl" -- is something more than just the sum of her body parts (even if she is upstaged by a dismembered arm in one scene), and Fran Kranz's witty pot-head conspiracy theorist is such an engaging personality the movie risks deflating without him. Yes, they're archetypes, but they're not stereotypes -- the dialogue is always a notch or three smarter and snappier than you'd expect.

Maybe -- if we're being picky -- this is all too self-consciously clever to be truly scary on the visceral, soul-gnawing level of the most unforgettable horror films. But there's no question that this is one of the most entertaining and invigorating shockers in recent years. It's also one of the best movies of 2012 so far, in any genre.

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