The meta-horror genre sprang up in the mid-1990s, with movies like “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994) and “Scream” (1996) — witty commentaries that self-consciously invoked the tired tropes of other horror movies in the pursuit of a whole new set of scares. Yet the trend didn’t last for long because, as myriad “Scream” sequels proved, finding that balance between terror and satire isn’t as easy as it looks.
Credit then to first-time director Drew Goddard, and his co-screenwriter Joss Whedon (the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), who have at least tried to bring a moribund genre back to life. “The Cabin in the Woods” sends five prototypical horror flick college kids — the jock, the sensitive stud, the nerd, the brainy beauty and the bimbo — on a weekend getaway, to a cabin that looks lifted wholesale off the set of Sam Raimi’s original “The Evil Dead” (1981). Before long, they find themselves drawn into the basement, where deadly supernatural forces await to be released.
What these young people don’t know is that, in some remote, unexplained location, a group of technicians — led by oddballs Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) — are watching their every move on camera and manipulating their surroundings. The set-up is witty and intriguing — is this some sort of “Truman Show”-style reality competition? — but the balance of “The Cabin in the Woods” feels off.
In order for meta-horror to work, it needs to pay heed to the terror; if it’s just a series of snarky gags, the audience quickly checks out. Goddard and Whedon overplay the winking postmodernism — there might as well be quotation marks around every line of dialogue, making certain we don’t miss any references to horror movies of yore.
The altogether dismal young cast displays little in the way of conviction. It’s hard to believe actors are terrified when they can barely disguise the smirks on their faces.
The movie enjoyed an exuberant reception at its world premiere last month at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where the uber-geekiness of the final act found the ideal geek audience.
Everyone else, however, will more likely just shrug at this well-intentioned, but half-baked effort.