The setup is all too familiar: Five good-looking college students pile into an RV for a weekend escape to an isolated, dilapidated cabin, foolhardily ignoring indications that something might be a tad amiss. The Cabin in the Woods, however, prominently boasts über-geek Joss Whedon's name in the credits as writer, the first indication that whatever clichés may follow should be viewed through scare quotes.
That impression is soon reinforced when the opening credits' blood-lensed timeline of human-sacrifice imagery cuts not to the ill-fated students, but to office drones Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford whining over Styrofoam coffee cups. The relationship between the two storylines is only gradually revealed, but is one of many twists that rewards spoiler avoidance. In short, it's best to approach this film cold and navigate its maze of surprises without a map.
From the outset, the young protagonists seem smarter and more fully realized than your average slasher-movie types, until suddenly they don't; then perspectives shift and we're suddenly in a completely different movie. Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard have created a mashup of Sam Raimi and Joseph Campbell that recognizes the primal appeal of some of our lowest-brow viewing habits. While Scream mined similar territory, Wes Craven basically began and ended with acknowledging that everyone was in on the joke, nesting a straightforward slasher film within a winking, postmodern one. The Cabin in the Woods goes a step further, deconstructing its targets while elevating them to the status of modern mythology.
Ultimately, it moves past sending up what we watch into questioning why we watch, albeit in a self-conscious, tongue-in-cheek manner. Down to its satisfying endgame cameo, the film cleverly balances being about horror flicks and still being a horror flick — the rare movie that manages to have its brains and eat them, too.