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The first thing you should know about "The Cabin in the Woods" is that you shouldn't know too much before you see it. Consider the words "SPOILER ALERT" branded on any review you might read, including this one.
If you're determined to know more, I'll tell you that director Drew Goddard and his co-writer, the uber-cool Joss Whedon (famous for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and soon "The Avengers"), perform a neat trick of mixology pouring every horror-movie cliché you can think of (and a few you may have forgotten) into a blender, mixing until the blood is frothy, then adding heaping scoops of sharp humor.
The result is a smart, and occasionally daring, homage to horror movies that both satirizes the genre and brings new life to it.
Here's where the spoilers start: The movie begins in a mysterious quasi-government base, where two white-collar drones, Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), are getting their coffee before their big day at work. Their office is a massive control room of some sort, and we soon learn that what they are controlling is the cabin of the movie's title a secluded, dark place that is the destination of five college students on a spring-break getaway. You know, the sort of place that exists only in slasher movies.
The students fit the archetypes, too. There's the jock guy, Curt (a pre-"Thor" Chris Hemsworth), and his randy girlfriend, Jules (Anna Hutchison). There's Curt's hunky nice-guy pal, Holden (Jesse Williams), and Jules' slightly shy roommate, Dana (Kristen Connolly), whom Curt and Jules aim to pair up. And, in the role of fifth wheel, there's Marty (Fran Kranz, from Whedon's "Dollhouse"), the stoner conspiracy theorist.
True to form, the five students get to the cabin and immediately start exhibiting the behavior common in horror movies: getting horny, finding mysterious artifacts that have secret curses, then inexplicably splitting up at the moment they should be banding together. What they don't know, and we do, is that this behavior is being controlled by Hadley and Sitterson and a crew of hundreds.
Goddard, a writer for Whedon's "Buffy" and "Angel," and his old boss pay tribute to the horror genre's conventions while also playfully tinkering with them. This is especially true in a gleefully chaotic sequence near the movie's end, which riffs on so many famous horror franchises that fanboys will be wearing out the "pause" buttons on their remotes the second this movie hits Blu-ray.
But in all this recycling and ironic referencing, there's something more sly at work. Goddard (who wrote the screenplay for "Cloverfield") and Whedon explore what makes horror work, what draws us to these scenarios time and time again and also why what's scary in, say, Japan isn't scary here. It's pop-culture anthropology brilliantly disguised as a blood-drenched thriller, and raises "The Cabin in the Woods" to a higher level of gory fun.
'The Cabin in the Woods'
The horror genre gets analyzed, satirized and enlivened with this smart, funny and scary send-up of slasher flicks.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, April 13.
Rating • Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity.
Running time • 95 minutes.