The Cabin in the Woods turns horror archetypes inside out

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon aren't playing any 'funny games'

Perhaps so many college kids descend on overcrowded Spring Break destinations like Fort Lauderdale not to party heartily, but to find safety in numbers. In movies, when a handful of young people seek remote getaways for sex, drugs, and campfire stories, they inevitably find themselves stalked by someone (or some thing) with homicidal intentions. The hot-bodied protagonists of The Cabin in the Woods follow in the ill-fated footsteps of the victims of previous movies.

The Cabin in the Woods pays homage to teen slasher films and other occult shockers, but writer/director Drew Goddard and co-scripter Joss Whedon have big, berserk ambitions beyond simple genre exercise. The filmmakers know their horror conventions inside and out: Goddard wrote for Whedon's cult series "Angel" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" before scripting the thrilling monster movie Cloverfield. The Cabin in the Woods deconstructs the scary-movie genre, stitches it back together like Frankenstein's monster, and gives it a high-voltage charge.

Goddard and Whedon introduce five college students with more wit and charm than the average horror movie heroes. In addition to Dana, the big-hearted good girl (Kristen Connolly), there's Curt, the brainy jock (Thor's Chris Hemsworth); Jules, the promiscuous bottle-blonde (Anna Hutchison); Holden, the soft-spoken nice guy (Jesse Williams); and Marty, the wisecracking pothead (an overacting Fran Kranz).

The students eagerly anticipate a weekend at a remote lakeside cottage where they can go off the grid, without realizing that they're venturing onto a grid of a much more sinister nature. From the outset, Cabin reveals that the college kids are under surveillance from Hadley and Sitterson (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins), a pair of middle-aged, middle-management types in a high-tech underground compound. Whitford and Jenkins convey the banality of evil as they grouse about their home life and prank their co-workers while conspiring against the unsuspecting young people.

Dana and her friends encounter a spooky stranger at a last-chance gas station and discover mysterious details about the cabin, including a basement practically full to the rafters with creepy objects like music boxes and antique dolls. Dana begins to read aloud from a 100-year-old journal and ... well, to give away any more would spoil the fun. Plus, Lionsgate has sworn critics to secrecy beyond a certain point. Suffice it to say that The Cabin the Woods achieves a level of mayhem and grisly slapstick that makes Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies look like "This American Life."

The film's wild visual invention alone would make it a cult classic. Even more impressively, The Cabin in the Woods retains its sense of proportion and humor while critiquing the horror genre and other visceral entertainments. Goddard and Whedon convey the ugly, dehumanizing aspects of voyeurism and desensitization to violence in no uncertain terms. But as opposed to a more self-conscious high-brow film with similar themes, like Michael Haneke's Funny Games, The Cabin in the Woods doesn't scold the audience for watching it. The grisly fun and sharp message go hand in hand without cancelling each other out.

The Cabin in the Woods will also make Whedon fans realize how much they miss the snappy dialogue and creative sensibility behind the creator of "Buffy," "Dr. Horrible," and "Firefly." Whedon doesn't just ironically comment on pop archetypes, but reinvigorates them for a savvy audience. With The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon and Goddard succeed almost too well by creating a film so funny and shocking as to make subsequent horror-getaway movies seem like an endangered species.