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.

Back to Movie Details

Movie News

FILE - In this April 29, 2011, file photo, Actor Vin Diesel poses during the photo call of the movie "Fast and Furious 5", in Rome. Diesel said Friday, March 27, 2015, that the latest "Fast & Furious" film deserves a best picture Oscar but has two strikes against it when it comes to the Academy, it's an action flick and it's a sequel. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)
Vin Diesel says Oscars weighted against action filmsVin Diesel says Oscars weighted against action films but latest 'Fast & Furious' deserves one
The Associated Press2 hours ago
Schwarzenegger's back for high-octane 'Terminator: Genisys'Arnold Schwarzenegger's back for high-octane, blockbuster hopeful 'Terminator: Genisys"
The Associated Press16 hours ago
Hollywood golden age actress Sally Forrest dies at 86Sally Forrest, actress and dancer of Hollywood's golden age, dies of cancer at 86
The Associated Press16 hours ago
Mexico City businesses cite losses during Bond filmingMexico City businesses complain of losses during 007 filming in historic downtown district
The Associated Press16 hours ago
FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2015 file photo, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, left, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson attend a special fan screening of "Fifty Shades of Grey" hosted by The Today Show at the Ziegfeld Theatre, in New York. Sam Taylor-Johnson will not be returning to direct the sequels to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” she announced Wednesday night, March 25, 2015. “Directing 'Fifty Shades of Grey' has been an intense and incredible journey for which I am hugely grateful,” she said in a statement to industry site Deadline in which she thanked Universal Pictures. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
'Fifty Shades' director Taylor-Johnson bows out of franchise'Fifty Shades of Grey' director Sam Taylor-Johnson bows out of franchise
The Associated Press20 hours ago
Movie News