Traditionally, horror movies have been measured by how effectively they thrill and chill audiences.
But after film scholars including Robin Wood and Linda Williams began examining those visceral reactions on an intellectual level, a crop of new horror movies — films that deconstructed horror movies, from “Scream” to last year’s “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil”— emerged.
Now, Joss Whedon’s genius “The Cabin in the Woods” takes this deconstruction to a new, cosmic level.
As in the recent “Shark Night” and “Creature,” “The Cabin in the Woods” begins with a group of teens who don’t seem like they would be friends: the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slut (Anna Hutchison), the pot-smoking comic relief (Fran Kranz), the gentlemanly scholar (Brian White) and the virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly).
As usual, they gather together for a fun weekend of drinking, sex and other debauchery in a borrowed, remote cabin.
But this time, something else happens: Two guys in lab coats (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford) show up for work and check into a clinical control room filled with switches and screens.
It turns out they are monitoring the teens; their purpose is best left undisclosed.
Whedon produced and co-wrote the screenplay, but leaves directorial duties to newcomer Drew Goddard, a writer for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.”
Goddard nicely juxtaposes the movie’s two halves, and has fun with both. For example, all the tropes of this teens-in-the-woods subgenre play out on cue — including the sexy girl removing her top — but performed with several layers of self-awareness (a move that, sadly, diminishes the story’s primal shock and scare factor).
The characters, who don’t rigorously fit their assigned roles, are aided by humor. Although the jock, played by Hemsworth (Thor in Whedon’s upcoming “Avengers”), is smart and generous, after a few hours in the cabin, he begins acting like an A-1 muscle-bound jerk.
Meanwhile, Jenkins and Whitford clearly enjoy their playful dialogue, which drips with clues, but is presented as though it’s another boring day on the job.
The movie wraps up its mystery a bit early, but the final reel has a blowout even the cleverest moviegoers won’t anticipate. Overall, horror fans won’t want to leave this “Cabin in the Woods” anytime soon.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford
Written by Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes