‘Cabin in the Woods’ an original reconstruction of horror genre, but it falls short of its potential (Movie review)

I’m currently finding myself disappointed with the end of “Angel” Season 4 in my “Rewatching and reviewing the classics” project, because the story of a secretly evil god coming to Earth and making her followers blindly happy while she eats them for sustenance is too broad of an idea to work on a week-to-week basis. It burns brightly but soon fades, and renders the main characters secondary. Yet I can’t deny that I’m watching a story arc that no TV visionary other than Joss Whedon would even think of attempting.

I have the same reaction to “The Cabin in the Woods,” which was co-written by Whedon and Buffyverse veteran Drew Goddard, who also directed. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another movie quite like “Cabin in the Woods,” which is not only about a group of 20-somethings who are terrorized at the titular location, but is also about — SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THIS POST — a secret government agency that purposely terrorizes young folks at this cabin for a greater purpose that soon becomes clear. The premise is a distant cousin to “The Hunger Games,” with horror in place of action.

Another point of comparison is the “Scream” franchise, simply because “Cabin” also uses common horror tropes (particularly the “Saw”-esque notion of an outside force staging the horror) as the foundation for a meatier theme. And, inevitably, when horror isn’t played straight, the tone gets confused. “Cabin’s” staging of “scary” scenes isn’t necessarily bad — the woods, backroads, middle-of-nowhere gas station and the cabin’s rooms and basement are visually creepy. But “Cabin” tips its hand so early (we meet the lead agents, played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, before we meet the vacationing college students) that it quashes the fear factor.

The excuse would be that because the frights are artificially constructed by the secret group, we’re really supposed to latch onto their story. Yet the covert agents aren’t really intriguingly mysterious; indeed, many scenes in the control bunker are played for dark humor. It’s not spelled out explicitly, but it was pretty obvious to me that the wild wagering among employees had to do with who was going to die first. I provided a spoiler alert above in order to avoid upsetting anybody, but I have to say that things unfolded the way I thought they would once I understood the (admittedly original) premise.

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had from watching this wild idea run its course, and a lot of this is thanks to the game cast. “Dollhouse” veteran Fran Kranz — whom I sometimes confuse with “Buffy” veteran Tom Lenk, who has a smaller role in “Cabin” — got a lot of laughs at the screening I went to. He plays the stoner who, like Jamie Kennedy in “Scream,” knows his horror clichés. When one of his friends starts reading an ancient journal and comes to the Latin part, Kranz’s exasperated Marty says, “OK, I’m going to draw a line in the sand here and ask that you please don’t read the Latin.” The other four friends are likable enough — Kristen Connolly has a sweet-and-innocent Ellie Kemper vibe — but they are mostly horror-flick grist.

The overhype of the film’s supposed surprise factor made me expect something amazing in the final act. Instead, Whedon and Goddard seem to empty their book of monster sketches for the sixth season of “Angel” that never made it to TV (in the Season 5 finale, a portal to a hell dimension was opened in Los Angeles), and at this point “Cabin” basically becomes a CGI version of “Evil Dead” — insane, over-the-top carnage.

The Jasmine arc in “Angel” Season 4 might be interesting to talk about — is it a metaphor for blindly following a religion? — but it’s not as interesting to watch. And it’s the same thing here: “Cabin” entertains broad questions about the place of humanity in the universe. But the movie itself, albeit entertaining, is shallower than its big idea.