Geek icon Joss Whedon designed The Cabin in the Woods for the sort of Comic-Con groupie who never met a "meta" movie he didn't like.
It follows in the footsteps of such horror-movie riffs as Scream, or the more recent (and more comic) Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
But Whedon's romp, while it has echoes of those other movies, has a funny mind of its own, and some upgrades that will resonate with a new generation caught in the scrutinized place between Homeland Security and Facebook.
Cabin has the quintessential horror-movie set-up - a group of young people pile into an RV on their way to a rural getaway, where most or all of them will be killed, according to the genre's dictates.
Producer/writer Whedon's first wrinkle is a neat one. In the prologue, we see that the college kids involved do not conform to genre stereotypes. The dumb blonde (Anna Hutchison) is neither dumb nor blonde (she's a brunette who dyes her hair for the trip), her "jock" boyfriend (Chris Hemsworth, who filmed this before he was Thor) is actually on an academic scholarship, and insists that his girlfriend pack the proper books. Also given added dimension are the requisite person of color (Jesse Williams) and the designated "virgin" (Kristen Connolly).
The closest thing to a stereotype is supplied by Fran Kranz as the fifth-wheel, pot-smoking wiseacre, a shaggy archetype straight out of Scooby-Doo, except that he's also a bit of a seer - the first in the group to sense there is something amiss at the remote cabin, where unseen forces first transform (amusingly) these distinct individuals into predictable "types," then set about killing them.
Now, about these "unseen forces."
Cabin comes with more spoiler admonitions than The Sixth Sense, so we must tread carefully. We can only go as far as the TV ads, which suggest the cabin and its occupants are under some sort of surveillance, linked in some way to the horrors unleashed upon them. It's not revealing too much to say that Cabin has thematic links to The Hunger Games, with its story of young people sacrificed to some predatory interests. I would add that Whedon - let's not forget he cowrote Toy Story - borrows some ideas from a Pixar movie about the industrial origins of nightmares. Whedon tweaks it, I think, to hit home with a target audience that is the most surveilled, data-mined, exploited generation in world history, and not always unwittingly. The characters here pointedly choose to go to the cabin after they've been warned not to - think about that the next time you mull over your social media privacy settings.
Cabin has been hit by criticism that it is too much a movie of ideas, and too clever for its own good. Certainly, it's more funny than scary, but I'm not the kind of critic who complains about a movie with too many ideas, when so many (especially in the horror space) have none at all.
The movie is smart, funny, unpredictable, deeply weird, and thoughtfully cast - there are offbeat supporting roles by the delightful Richard Jenkins, making his first horror movie, and Bradley Whitford, whose final scene alone is worth the price of admission.
Contact Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at www.philly.com/keepitreel.