Five friends from college decide to spend a weekend by a fishing hole in the woods by a cabin just purchased by one’s cousin.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, if you think you know, you’re in for some big, nasty, and frequently funny surprises in The Cabin in the Woods, a new film co-written by Joss Whedon (Firefly, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the debut directorial effort for co-writer Drew Goddard.

Cabin turns more than one horror meme on its head.  In fact, it’s both derivative and inventive in almost equal measure, and the product of this blend is both familiar and fresh all at the same time. However, it will be very, very difficult to describe exactly how this is without ruining the film for viewers.  For now, let’s just say that Goddard and Whedon have a lot of fun taking common memes in horror movies, especially the teenage-slasher films of the Halloween/Scream/I Know What You Did Last Summer variety, and making them an actual, intentional part of the plot by introducing a completely new — and sometimes darkly hilarious — element.  Cabin dares to treat the audience as if it already understands the genre, and then assumes we’re ready to take it to the next level, almost literally in some senses.  In other words, it assumes that we’re intelligent, which is a rather rare feature for horror films.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a serious horror film.  It is, and it’s rated R for a reason.  It gets graphically violent, with very intense action and disturbing images and concepts, and at times the screen is drenched in blood.  There is also brief nudity, some bad language, and significant drug references (marijuana), so it’s not for children or younger teenagers at all.

The actors playing the five main characters don’t have extensive resumes, but they’re hardly novices either.  Chris Hemsworth played Thor in the film of the same name and stars as the same character in the upcoming The Avengers, and does well in this film as the athlete Curt.  Kristen Connolly makes it easy to sympathize and identify with Dana, and Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, and Fran Kranz do well in the traditional friend roles.  However, veteran character actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford all but steal the film and have most of the fun, and Sigourney Weaver’s cameo appearance provides a crowning climax to Cabin.

Cabin will not be for everyone.  If the components I mentioned earlier are off-putting, you’d be better off skipping this.  However, if you like the horror genre, enjoy seeing archetypes turned on their head, or just like inventive and creative story-telling leavened with genuine humor, then you could do a lot worse than stop by the The Cabin in the Woods this weekend.

Update: Focus on the Family’s Plugged In review isn’t as positive, and it has some spoilers (follow over at your own risk), but I mostly agree with its conclusion:

“You get used to it,” a colleague wearily says.

“Should you?” the new guy on the underground block returns.

If the film has a moral, this is it. Folks have become hardened to horrific violence on movie screens. But should they? Should you? Should we open ourselves up to this stuff, munching popcorn as human after human is harvested for the sake of our gluttonous entertainment appetites? Whedon and Goddard, in their own malevolent and maladroit way, say no. And we’d be well advised to listen.

Obviously, I enjoyed it more than this reviewer, but this was certainly one of themes in the film, and not a bad message, either.  In that way, it’s a bit like the internally subversive Inglorious Basterds, which I enjoyed less, but which had the same “I can’t believe you’re actually buying this over-the-top violence” subtext.

Update II: I almost forgot to mention that my friend John Hanlon has a new film-review site launched, John Hanlon Reviews.  John has a review up of Lockout, which was my second choice this weekend.  It looks like Die Hard meets Escape from New York — in space.  That turns out not to be a good thing, but not entirely bad, either.