JOPLIN, Mo. — A formula for horror movies has allowed the genre to grow stale and repetitive:
- There is a killer, be it homicidal, ghostly, inbred redneck, zombified or what have you, that seeks revenge for some transgression.
- There is the group of college kids, usually fitting a given stereotype, that must try, mostly unsuccessfully, to fend off said killer.
- There are shocks and jumps thrown in to keep audiences engaged.
- The whole thing is topped off by copious amounts of blood and gore.
It is why the genre as a whole is one of my least favorite, and why I am rarely surprised by these films. But on rare occasions a fresh voice or insight will shake it up a bit.
Kevin Williamson was able to poke fun at the horror cliches while still writing an effective homage in the original “Scream” (and much less successfully in the subsequent sequels he was involved with). “Zombieland” and “Shaun of the Dead” mixed zombies in with their comedy.
Lately, though, there hasn’t been much new perspective that has allowed a horror movie to really surprise. Fortunately, writer Joss Whedon has come along to turn the horror genre on its head.
Whedon -- who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and wrote and directed the upcoming “The Avengers” -- is one of the more talented writers working in Hollywood today. So when it was announced that he would be taking a stab at horror, it did peak my interest.
The result, “The Cabin in the Woods,” is part homage, part horror and all giddy fun.
“Cabin” tells of a group of five college students who go off on a weekend retreat at a cousin’s cabin. But all is not as it seems as we quickly realize that the students are not on an ordinary vacation; their actions are being manipulated by a government force for unknown reasons.
As the group begins to realize that all is not as it seems, the film begins to unfold in a twisty, twisted fashion, revealing the people and reasons behind this experiment. I won’t go into any further detail, as half of the fun is just hanging on for the ride, but I think it’s safe to say that you won’t see what’s coming.
The greatest strength of the movie is how it plays with the tropes and stereotypes of the horror film genre, but does so in a unique way. It analyzes the idea of free will in a fright flick, and whether the characters involved ever had any hope of survival in the first place.
The characters make their choices, but one must wonder if their choices weren’t pre-determined before they even arrived. Using cliche after cliche, the filmmakers poke holes in the ideas of scary movies, then shake the entire thing up and unleash it on the audience.
While the gore is over the top (the last half hour or so is relentless in its bloodletting), it is in such a way as to highlight the absurdity of the latest generation of horror filmmakers who equate blood with scares, rather than make a film genuinely frightening. And the writing and dialogue are far above the genre’s usually bland output. Bonus points to any film that recycles 1980s era anti-drug public service announcements for laughs.
What Whedon and director Drew Goddard have done is create a film that is not only a tribute to the movies they love but also a fine example of the form, even surpassing so much of what passes for horror films these days. With a wit and energy that seems almost out of place when put next to the slasher and gore films of today, “Cabin” has as much fun in pointing out the faults of today’s horror films as it does in using them to its own gain.
What the audience is left with is a fun exploration of what has now become commonplace. Each twist and turn is there to set up for the final reveal, and the last third of the movie will leave the audience enthralled and satisfied.
Here’s hoping Whedon’s “Avengers” is half as much fun.