When a hottie, a virgin, an egghead, a jock, and a stoner walk into an isolated cottage for a college getaway weekend in The Cabin in the Woods, a wised-up viewer would do well to ask, What is this, a joke? Even when extravagantly terrible things begin happening to the quintet, the question lingers: Is Cabin a serious screamfest, or Scream 5? But the makers of this smoothly clever, faintly self-congratulatory project, aimed at a youth-oriented crowd of Netflix adepts who make frequent use of the IMDb app on their smartphones, choose not to answer. Instead they offer entertainment with the impressive Rubik's Cube-y structure of something new a contortion well represented on Cabin movie posters and the soul of something safe and square. In these Woods, the honest terror of real horror is never a threat. Even when all hell breaks loose, that hell is cushioned by air quotes, with the audience buckled up for benign, heady fun.
It's a challenge to discuss the movie without resorting to spoilers, but it's not impossible. Those five ill-fated friends are readily recognizable archetypes from scary pictures both ironic and sincere. And there's pleasure, for fans inclined to make the leap, in comparing them with the population invented by Cabin co-writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon when the two worked on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (With Cabin, Goddard makes his feature directorial debut.) There's also wit to the casting. Two of the young innocents who go exploring when they shouldn't Kristen Connolly as the virgin, and a particularly enjoyable Fran Kranz as the stoner are serious stage actors (Kranz is currently on Broadway in Death of a Salesman). And it's amusing to see Chris Hemsworth as a very mortal jock after playing the titular immortal in Thor. The cabin too is a specimen of fright-house decorating. The woods rustle with menace.
The revelation that Others are busy monitoring our cast of young people as they shriek in the dark woods a reality hinted at even in the movie's trailer deepens the mystery. So does the appearance of Six Feet Under's incomparable Richard Jenkins and The West Wing's snappy Bradley Whitford, whose involvement in the tale will eventually explain the movie's tagline: ''You think you know the story.'' These two experienced actors provide the film's adult-level entertainment. Whitford does some fast walking-and-talking dialogue, in cheeky homage to the multitasking West Wing White House operative he once played. And with his outstanding ability to make a fully formed character out of even the most minimal of building materials, Jenkins comes closest to making all of this matter.
He can't do it on his own, though. As the stakes become greater, storytellers Whedon and Goddard creep right up to the lip of a really interesting chasm of hell. They cha-cha around the abyss. And then they say...Nah, preferring to play with the symbols of scary movies rather than sincerely provoke and explore fear itself. And so, as countless squibs of fake blood explode and chaos reigns, this viewer is left to wonder: What does it take these days to really, seriously horrify the target audience for The Cabin in the Woods? Where are the intrepid genre filmmakers willing to be unironic, challenging viewers comfortable with game-style plot twists and the digitized world of mash-ups and re-tweets in which the amused head is more familiar than the aroused heart? In production notes, Whedon reports with pride that ''[Goddard] is a true horror aficionado. He's the kind of horror director who'll spend a day watching different blood splatters to find the right one.'' The scary truth is, the right blood splatters don't mean splat in a movie that feels like a game.
Under the imprimatur of the estimable Whedon don't get me wrong, all hail Buffy! The Cabin in the Woods arrives with buzz, amplified by the echo chamber of its reception at this year's SXSW Film Festival. But buzz is a thin sound, with none of the power to stir our actual blood. The movie's biggest surprise may be that the story we think we know from modern scary cinema that horror is a fun, cosmic game, not much else here turns out to be pretty much the whole enchilada. B-