There is literally no way in which you can say anything useful about The Cabin in the Woods without having deploy thickets of "spoiler" tags. It looks like a horror movie, until it isn't, until it is after all. You can't go trying to unpick something like that without giving the whole game away. So it's probably just as well that I didn't get round to watching it until it was out on DVD. By this stage, any of the hundred or so people who might read this have either seen the movie or don't care enough about it that finding out how it works would ruin anything. But hey, if you somehow still haven't seen the movie and you think you might like to, come back to this later.
The Cabin in the Woods seems to start with everything out in plain sight; on the one hand, there's a group of five stereotypical kids setting out to a - cabin in the woods - for a holiday weekend of sex and drugs and rock and roll, just like all those terrible chop-em-ups of the 1980s. And over on the other hand, a huge lab full of engineers and scientists seems to be gearing up to monitor the trip. Since we're getting a scenario straight out of Friday the 13th territory, it seems like the twist is that the lab is going to run a horror movie. But why? Is it an experiment? Is it reality TV gone nuts? well, more nuts than it already is.
It's actually way cooler than that, and the surprising bit is just how well the movie paces the reveal. The action breaks cleanly into three acts, and everything gets its job done in around an hour and half. Nothing outstays its welcome, though I have to say that Whedon could have left the camera running all day on Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as Hadley and Sitterson, the two lead engineers keeping the lab on the rails. Dressed identically in white shirts and drab ties like a pair of second two desk guys in NASA's glory days, they sit there behind the monitors manipulating their hapless victims and bickering apathetically as if they were running the only traffic light in a two horse township somewhere in Idaho. They're orchestrating horrible murder for terrible reasons and, hey man, it's just a job, and whose turn is it to fill the coffee-maker. It's brilliant. There's something hypnotic about the performances; it's not just that they're funny, but that Whitford and Jenkins are perfectly convincing as people who've been killing college kids for so long that they've tuned out that side of the job and just worry about getting the technical details right. And in Hadley's case mope about the fact that it's always the same monsters and he's never going to get to see a Merman…..
Which is not to say that they steal the show entirely. Amy Acker and Fran Kranz are working flat out in their own ways to steal it back. They were the most fun in Whedon's too-bonkers-to-live Dollhouse, and Kranz in particular is probably the hardest working guy in the movie. His character is a permanently addled stoner, and it says a lot about the work he does that it never occurred to me that he was supposed to remind me of Shaggy in Scooby Doo until long after the movie was over; he had exactly the same voice, messy hair and rumpled demeanour, albeit much better lines and an actual brain behind the fog. Marty is a great character, but not an original one; we've seen thousands of stoners and even hundreds of stoners in peril, but The Cabin in the Woods is probably the only movie around that shows us an enormous NASA-like organisation trying to KILL People like that, so it's the organisation which really grabbed my attention. Hadley and Sitterson are kind of terrible people, but they're fun to watch.
I know that they're supposed to be a horrible warning about the way we watch horror movies and get entertained by seeing terrible things happen to simpleminded strangers, but Hadley and Sitterson are really a warning to everyone who's ever sat behind an office desk and done something heartless because if they didn't do it, someone else would. I think that's what made the performances so riveting. I wonder if we should make the movie mandatory viewing once a year for people in government offices…..