From its title on down, The Cabin in the Woods is set up as purposefully conventional. Five friends of varying backgrounds and archetypes are headed out to a family cabin to swim in the lake, drink, have sex, and smoke some pot. There is, as always, the jock and de-facto leader of the group (Thor's Chris Hemsworth), his sex-fueled slutty girlfriend (Anna Hutchinson), the sensitive brain (Jesse Williams), the sweet virginal girl (Kristen Connolly) and, last but not least, the stoner/comic relief (Fran Kranz). These five college students ignore the ominous, creepy gas station attendant (you know the one) who spits and snarls at them. They don't think twice about the shabbiness of the cabin, and when they uncover a cellar full of strange and Gothic materials they accidentally, in a sense, unleash hell.
Of course if you have seen a preview for The Cabin in the Woods, you know there is more than meets the eye here. I am not spoiling the twists and turns and developments - and there are many - when I say that this cabin and its inhabitants are all in a controlled environment. Everything from the sky to the air to the type of hell being unleashed is operated and manipulated from a NASA-like control room headed by two men, Sidderson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). We actually meet these two first, in a genius opening sequence where the men, in short sleeves and black ties, have a casual conversation about cabinet safety locks. Sidderson and Hadley operate the cabin and its various departments (chemical, demolition, maintenance, etc.) like a city government. But there is very much more at play here.
Any more divulging of the plot would spoil the story so I'll stop there. The Cabin in the Woods isn't particularly scary because we realize it's all a set up. It isn't, in my view, supposed to be scary. This horror film deconstructs conventions of horror rather than creating its own real scares. It is more interesting than frightening, and it is fascinating as the pieces of the puzzle come into place. The way writer's Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also directs) point out horror convention while creating something more unique than just about anything to come out of Hollywood horror in a long time is the real joy of the picture. The scares are secondary.
I don't think the film is without a few flaws along the way. All of the connections seem painted with a broad brush in the end. It fits together, but in a very sweeping sort of generalization. Otherwise, The Cabin in the Woods is a cool flick. Outside of Chris Hemsworth the members of the quintet are unknown, and their names and performances are secondary to the structure of the film. But I must say the casting of Jenkins and Whitford as the operators behind the scenes is a small stroke of genius. Jenkins is always good, and we really need more Bradley Whitford and his dry wisecracking persona in the movies.
Any horror fan should seek out The Cabin in the Woods. But not for the scares as I mentioned. Horror fans will enjoy the way the film peels away the creaky cliches of horror films in the past. The best thing about The Cabin in the Woods is how it comments on itself and stays original, truly funny at times, and devoted to its structure. It's a lot of fun.