“The Evil Dead” is a fine horror movie. “Evil Dead II” is a bona fide classic. Here’s the joke: They’re basically the same movie. The first one was directed by a 22-year-old Sam Raimi when he wanted to prove he could conjure real screams with no money. The second, six years later, was a comedy that had terrific (and much-copied) fun with the cliches of the slasher pic. And since then, it’s been hard to take the cabin-in-the-woods movie very seriously. It’s a set-up that works best as parody (“Dead Snow,” “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil”) or psychological fuck-you-up (“Antichrist”), but not as horror. (One problem: Once cell technology became cheap and omnipresent, audiences noticed when you ostentatiously put characters in places where their iPhones were bricked.)
And so we have “The Cabin in the Woods,” a sort of ur-parody of all horror movies that uses the cursed, electronically stranded outpost as a starting point. It was co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. I was a little surprised at the choice of partners, because Goddard worked on the final, more-serious season of Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He’s kept his end up and created a seriously funny satire of slasher flicks, but he’s kept the serious stuff in there.
My first spoiler: “The Cabin in the Woods” posits that the Ancients (a little Lovecraft reference for you) sleep beneath the earth. They require frequent human sacrifies. If they don’t get them, they’ll rise and destroy mankind. Resourceful humans have figured out a solution: In secluded underground locations, all over the planet, they trap unsuspecting people into cliched horror scenarios, get their kills, and send the blood down to the Ancients to shut ‘em up.
It’s a fun concept with only a few logic holes. The American trope-bunker — run by two bored bureaucrats played perfectly by Brad Whitford and Richard Jenkins — makes sure that four or five archetypes get killed. The archetypes: a Fool, a Whore, an Athlete, a Scholar, and a Virgin. (The virgin doesn’t NEED to be killed, necessarily. See: Every horror movie ever, and the Last Girl trope.) But an extremely funny side-story shows us that the usually-successful Japanese trope-bunker is trying to appease the Ancients with a sort of Ringu-rip-off, a ghost girl terrorizing a room of schoolchildren. It’s hilarious (particularly when it fails and Jenkins yells “Fuck you!” at all of the tiny children on his screen), but… are the five archetypes present in a Japanese girl’s school? I’m skeptical.
NONETHELESS: The movie gives a set of five undergrads, all credible spouters of Whedonesque dialogue, who fit the archetypes almost perfectly. (We have a lot of fun with the “almosts.” The jock, played by Chris Hemsworth, is actually a Sociology major with a working expertise of Soviet history. The “virgin” isn’t actually a virgin, so the “director” of the conspiracy shrugs that “we work with what we’ve got.”) They play their parts. It’s the “Fool,” a pothead played by Fran Kranz, who assumes that the weirdness afflicting them is being orchestrated somehow. He and the Virgin (Kristen Connolly, a soap opera actress like Sarah Michelle Gellar once was) manage to unravel the conspiracy. In so doing, they… make possible the gruesome murder of hundreds of bureaucrats, then destroy the world.
Perhaps I haven’t sold you on this movie. Very well. Two words: Killer unicorn.