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The Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon's winking take on the horror genre.

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, respectively director and producer as well as co-screenwriters of The Cabin in the Woods, aim to revitalize the horror movie by subverting genre conventions. Nothing wrong with that, as the Scream franchise showed back in the '90s. But when the meta-references take over at the expense of character or plot, the knowing self-amusement wears thin.

Shot in early 2009 and shelved for more than two years from its original release date because of MGM's financial meltdown, the film was acquired last year by Lionsgate. After premiering to an enthusiastic response March 9 as the South by Southwest Film Festival's opener, Cabin will be released domestically April 13.

A writing collaborator of both Whedon (on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) and J.J. Abrams (on Alias and Lost, and as screenwriter of Cloverfield), Goddard is in his element. But the co-writers have cooked up a high-concept slasher riff so convoluted, it makes the most arcane developments on Lost play like a "Spot the Dog" reader.

Five college kids go off the grid for a weekend at a remote cabin by a lake. There's the slut (Anna Hutchison); the alpha jock (Chris Hemsworth, upcoming in Whedon's The Avengers); the stoner (Fran Kranz, from Whedon's Dollhouse series); the sensitive scholar (Jesse Williams); and the virgin (Kristen Connolly).

The film's primary twist can be gleaned from the trailer, so it's no spoiler to call this a mutant hybrid of The Truman Show and The Evil Dead. Two puppet-masters in a lab work monitors and run a betting pool on how these lambs will meet their slaughter (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as pitiless mid-level corporate techies). The mystery is who's running their show and why.

The weekenders do what all kids in horror movies do: They guzzle beer, smoke weed, play truth or dare and make out. While the early cabin carnage is strictly routine, more droll touches come from the lab, where temperature controls and pheromone mists are unleashed on the captives with deadpan glee. But when the predetermined order of death is disrupted, the door is opened to orgiastic Grand Guignol excess.

Fanboys will enjoy checking off all the winking acknowledgments to horrormeisters from Clive Barker to Stephen King and beyond. However, in order to subvert any popular form, entertainment first has to work on its own terms. Goddard and Whedon are too busy geeking out to take those requirements seriously.

Release date: Friday, April 13 (Lionsgate)
Cast: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams
Director: Drew Goddard
Rated R, 105 minutes