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The Cabin in the Woods

Like the seemingly generic location at the center of the movie, The Cabin in the Woods has a purposefully familiar exterior. But it's a facade, and in the film's first few minutes, writer/director Drew Goddard draws back the curtain to unveil an innovative and unexpected world. The setup is simple: five twenty-somethings head for a vacation in a lone shack upstate, but when they arrive, things quickly take a turn for the worse. The run-of-the-mill supernatural antics aren't simply for our amusement — there's another force behind the scenes, orchestrating the quintet's demise for a bigger purpose. The mystery behind those horror movie tropes is Cabin in the Woods's clever twist, a riff that's wickedly funny and endlessly fulfilling.

The first people we meet in Cabin in the Woods aren't the soon-to-be-terrorized young folk, but two technicians, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), who coordinate the Cabin's entertaining mischief. They're like employees pulled out of Office Space, susceptible to the same droll ups and downs of any job —their gig just involves murdering co-eds. They sit in a control room, orchestrating each piece of their plan with well-placed hurdles (cue the creaky door!) and rehearsed extras (enter: mysterious gas station owner). If that screams spoiler, don't fret; the who, the what, the where and the why are all kept secret, unraveling in parallel and commenting on the routine horror plotline.

Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon don't let the scary movie thread fall to the wayside, painting their ensemble with colorful characters and great talent: despite being stunning creatures, the perfect types for a serial killer to chase down with a a giant knife, Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Jules (Anna Hutchison) are smart, savvy and sharp (a tangible sign of Whedon's influence); Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and his buddy Holden (Jesse Williams) are big and brutish — but not without personality; and Marty (Fran Kranz)... loves weed. Only after they arrive at the cabin, a whiff of pheromonal gas in the air, do they transform into the archetypical horror characters. All according to plan.

Cabin in the Woods has its cake and eats it too, simultaneously clicking as a terrifying horror film, a cackle-worthy satire and a thought-provoking dissection of the genre. Alongside its send-up of the overplayed "cabin in the woods" mechanics are grander ideas. Why do we watch? Goddard evaluates every perspective but never in a didactic fashion. There's a fury of imagination in every scene, every joke, Goddard and Whedon's script taking every opportunity to push the concept to unanticipated places. Across the board, all the actors are able to balance the unusual heightened realism, with Hemsworth proving his knack for comedy and versatility as an up-and-comer.

Cabin in the Woods is non-stop fun from beginning to end, concluding with a grand finale that no amount of spoilers could ever dilute. At SXSW, I called Cabin "the most crowd-pleasing movie of all time" and while that may seem sensationalist, I assure I'll be rewatching this one for a long time.