Stop reading this review right now.
Go see "The Cabin in the Woods," then come back and we can have a conversation about it. Just trust me on this. The less you know going into it, the better.
We can say this much: The hype is justified. And that's saying something when we're talking about geek god Joss Whedon, who produced and co-wrote the script with director Drew Goddard, a veteran of such revered TV shows as "Lost" and Whedon's own "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Goddard makes his directing debut with this long-awaited film (he also previously wrote "Cloverfield") but he keeps all the moving parts humming along with thrilling fluidity and ease.
So yes, "The Cabin in the Woods" is as good as you've heard, or at least as good as you've hoped it would be, because it walks a very difficult line and manages to find the right tone pretty much the entire time.
Anyone can try to be subversive. Anyone can spoof and parody and wink at the camera in making fun of a specific genre, especially one like horror in which the conventions are so deeply ingrained and staying a couple steps ahead of the characters is part of the fun. But the trick is to avoid going overboard and to play it somewhat straight.
The "Scream" movies in the 1990s were super-meta and cutesy and knowing, with characters who were all-too aware of the rules of a horror movie and their roles within that structure. "The Cabin in the Woods" affectionately toys with the familiarity of certain types and plot points but it also dares to take a step back and examine why we need to return to these sorts of films, why we love to laugh and jump, why we hunger for carnage and thirst for blood.
This probably makes "Cabin" sound like some sort of analytical, eggheady thesis, and while it is extremely clever and intelligent, it also could not be more fun. It pays homage to the kinds of frights horror fans know and love while managing to provide surprises and twists, layers upon layers, over and over again. It's humorously self-aware without being smugly sarcastic; again, a tough balance to strike.
Let's quickly touch upon plot and then get out: Five friends go away for the weekend to a remote cabin by a lake. There's party-girl Jules (Anna Hutchison), her jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth, who made this film before "Thor" made him a star), the bookish-but-sexy Holden (Jesse Williams), wisecracking stoner Marty (Fran Kranz, who gets the best lines of the group) and the wholesome Dana (Kristen Connolly). Because they are good-looking college archetypes, they must drink beer, smoke weed, undress and cavort; it heightens their vulnerability.
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. From the character descriptions alone, you can probably determine who's going to get it and in what order.
But wait, there's also a parallel story line involving Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as midlevel managers at some sort of sterile research lab who kill time one-upping each other with deadpan gallows humor. As Goddard and Whedon jump back and forth, the pieces snap into place; then just when you think you've got it all figured out, they throw something else at you.
"Cabin" may not win over any new converts to the horror genre, but it'll certainly make the faithful feel fervent all over again.
"The Cabin in the Woods," a Lionsgate release, is rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 95 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.