By Michael Phillips 2015-03-06

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

2 1/2 stars

A peppy horror mash-up with existential airs, "The Cabin in the Woods" goes completely nuts in its final half-hour and is all the better for it. Writers lie about this sort of thing constantly, but according to screenwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who cut their eyeteeth on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" among other credits, the script came together in three days, in the spirit of "Let's try that, too."

Goddard, making his feature directorial debut, plays around with a gratifying level of blood (tremendous gallons of it in the climax) and a tricky, partially successful mixture of fright and snark. I can see why a lot of people adored this deconstructionist self-critique of the slasher genre in its South by Southwest premiere last month. Considering how blatantly it reassembles existing parts, it's inventive. And yet I found myself thinking back, fondly, on simpler pleasures in the comically horrific realm, along the lines of Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell," for example.

"The Cabin in the Woods" does plenty of thinking back and winking on its own. Raimi's fabulous "Evil Dead 2" is referenced in a cameo featuring a disembodied zombie arm. The title design of Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" gets a wholesale lift in the alarming way we first see the title THE CABIN IN THE WOODS on screen, crash-landing in the middle of a simple two-person dialogue exchange. Dario Argento's "Suspiria," "Scooby-Doo," the tantalizing vagaries of the TV show "Lost" (on which Goddard worked) all become part of an extremely thick stew.

Five college friends pile into a camper for a frolicsome vacation. There's the alpha male hunk (Chris Hemsworth), his va-voom girlfriend (Anna Hutchison), the stoner and Shaggy of the group (Fran Kranz), the shy but charismatic brain (Jesse Williams) and the sympathetic, smart and not incidentally pretty hot protagonist (Kristen Connolly). Early on, we're shown that they're being watched very closely, and perhaps controlled, by a massive control room. Their primary handlers are played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Jenkins' character speaks of a rigged "game," and various "scenarios" to be deployed, depending on the actions of the temporary cabin residents.

The cabin is soon beset by killer redneck zombies. But what is this madness, this mixture of "The Truman Show" and "Friday the 13th"? Why do these character types seem so deliberately formulaic? Even if you don't buy the overarching notion (I won't wreck it for you), there's a pleasant payoff in seeing the story's all-knowing, all-seeing authority figures faced with serious challenges to that authority. Whedon and Goddard bake their cake and eat it, too. As Jenkins and Whitford watch their good-looking prey on various monitors, looking like bored editors scanning raw footage, the meta-criticism grows intense.

In the film's press materials Whedon is quoted as saying: "Why do we love horror movies so much? There's some part of us, some deep, dark, primitive part of us that wants to sacrifice these people on screen. I wanted to make a movie that explained why." You may buy his explanation, or not. "The Cabin in the Woods" is pure mechanics, as if the shadowy Dharma Initiative of "Lost" switched agents and found itself at the center of a brain-bending ensemble drama. Still, the special guest creatures in the climax include a killer unicorn, which is something you don't see every day.

MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity)

Running time: 1:35.

Cast: Kristen Connolly (Dana Polk); Chris Hemsworth (Curt Vaughan); Anna Hutchison (Jules Louden); Fran Kranz (Marty); Jesse Williams (Holden); Bradley Whitford (Richard Sitterson); Richard Jenkins (Steve Hadley).

Credits: Directed by Drew Goddard; written by Goddard and Joss Whedon; produced by Whedon. A Lionsgate release.

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