“You think you know the story,” boasts the tagline for The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard), the new horror film helmed by nerd auteur Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly fame). With its M. C. Escher-inspired poster art and impassioned pleas by its publicists to critics not to spoil any of its twists, it promises to be a dizzying mind-fuck of a movie. So one can’t help but feel a bit disappointed to find that the film more or less founds itself on a single gimmick, one that’s moderately clever but not exactly airtight, and that runs out of steam about twenty minutes before the end. As far as mind-fucking goes—or real, nightmare-inducing scares, for that matter—it’s got nothing on, say, almost anything by David Lynch. But it’s a fun, jumpy one-trick-pony of a movie.
The rules that govern the film’s universe are also fundamentally unclear, which raises bigger, thornier questions about what exactly it’s trying to say about genre, cinematic pleasure, or the relationship between either of these and what we might call “reality.” It becomes more and more clear that The Cabin in the Woods is most successful in its first hour, when it’s pointing out the rules of the horror film at the same time that it’s playing by them. This first hour, with its breezy sense of humor and “gotcha” scares (the audience jumps, then laughs), is a classic example of how great horror films blend fear and humor—how the pleasures of being scared are related to the pleasures of comedy, and how these pleasures become even more delicious when they’re lubricated by the more visceral pleasures of sex and violence. These early scenes understand the horror genre better, ironically, than do its seemingly clever third-act twists.