When it comes to horror movies, the decrepit cabin in the middle of the woods is the ideal location: The cabin can be spooky, the woods can keep help away and harbor critters, and the building can be a sanctuary or a deathtrap. This has been used in horror (Friday the 13th), horror-based comedy (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) and a mix of the two (Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn). With The Cabin in the Woods, this staple of horror gets a metafictional take, thanks in no small part to producer and co-writer Joss Whedon.

There are two stories happening in The Cabin in the Woods. The first seems to be a fairly typical teenage weekend getaway gone horribly wrong for five college students: innocent Dana (Kristen Connolly), her promiscuous friend Jules (Anna Hutchison), Jules' jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), brainy Holden (Jesse Williams),and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz). They decide to spend the weekend at Curt's cousin's cabin in the middle of nowhere (so far away it has no cell reception or appear on Google maps). And when they explore the creepy basement, someone makes the mistake of reading some Latin phrases from an old diary -- and soon zombies are attacking the teens.

But there's also a business of sorts going on: a high-tech operation is manipulating what's happening to the teens, from monitoring them before they even leave to releasing gasses to affect the teens' behavior and controlling the evnironment (including a Holodeck-like virtual reality border at the edge of the woods). This is a mix of middle management types in dress shirts and ties (the two main ones played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford), a concerned scientist (Amy Acker) and the uptight new guy (Brian White). These people treat this like just another job, from making in-office bets on what will happen to working to make sure everything proceeds according to plan. They monitor the teenagers constantly, view similar paranormal situations from around the world, and worry about upper management and ancient gods.

While I have to give credit to this movie for trying to create something new with a frequently-used horror situation, The Cabin in the Woods ultimately tries for far too much. The contrasts between the wild, dirty, supernatural woods the teens occupy and the sterile office environment of the folks for whom the teens' torture and murder is business works for a while but gets overused quickly. While the movie plays with the role of the audience as voyeurs to horror by having the events watched by other characters in the movie, pretty soon everything from commerce to Lovecraftian Great Old Ones get tossed into the mix. (Adding in a massive number of horror monsters near the end just feels like massive self-indulgence.) And while there's a reason the teens are cliches of horror, no actors really stand out.

I'm sure there will be plenty of woods housing threatened teens in cabins, but most won't be as ambitious as The Cabin in the Woods. While this movie does have some scares and some nice contrasts, it ultimately proves too deliberately clever for its own good.

Overall grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch

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