Five college students are off for a weekend at a rustic cabin in the woods, and they probably won’t be back for midterms.
You may think you’ve seen this before, but you haven’t seen it quite like this.
“The Cabin in the Woods” is a satire from that canny genre-buster Joss Whedon, who was using vampires as a metaphor for the turmoil of adolescence when Stephenie Meyer was still at Brigham Young.
Unlike the “Scream” and “Scary Movie” series, “The Cabin in the Woods” does more than ape familiar tropes for laughs. It asks why we consider the suffering of pretty people entertainment. The film specifically takes on the torture porn of “Saw” and “Hostel,” which has thankfully faded in the years since this film was shot.
“Cabin” was filmed in 2009; its release was postponed for a scrapped 3-D conversion, and then its studio, MGM, went bankrupt. That it was picked up by Lionsgate, which made a mint on the “Saw” series, might be the biggest in-joke of all.
Once the friends arrive at the house they begin to adopt recognizable roles. Dana (Kristen Connolly) becomes the resourceful brunette and relative virgin. Curt (a pre-“Thor” Chris Hemsworth), no dope at school, starts making dumb-jock decisions, while his girlfriend, Jules (Anna Hutchison), a newly bleached blonde, starts behaving like one.
Holden (Jesse Williams), who has been set up with Dana, is the brainiac who can read Latin (he’s also the Black Guy), and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz of Whedon’s “Dollhouse”) is the comic relief.
Only a spoilsport would reveal what follows — although it involves the great character actor Richard Jenkins, an equally fine Bradley Whitford, Amy Acker (of Whedon’s “Angel” and “Dollhouse”) and an uncredited movie star.
But Whedon’s fans will recognize similar setups — and a preoccupation with the banality of evil — from Whedon’s TV shows (save “Firefly”).
Whedon, writing with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” writer Drew Goddard (who directs ably and spares us the worst), is pop culture’s Bruno Bettelheim — the psychologist who detected childhood fears in fairy tales. Whedon and Goddard dig into the primitive psyche to theorize about the persistence of a horror that is more gory than scary.
The jokes are fueled by anger at the degeneration of the genre, with an accusing finger pointed at a bloodthirsty audience.
“Remember when you could just throw a girl in a volcano?” asks Whitford’s character. Those were the days.