NORMAN — Mind blown, hair on fire.
Seeing “The Cabin in the Woods” set a new personal benchmark for fiendishly creative takes on genre entertainment. Like the proto-Surrealist creepshow “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” it twists a standard horror saga into something resembling a collaboration between Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll. As such, it’s almost impossible to describe in detail without spoiling surprises you should discover for yourself.
In a way, “Cabin” is “Friday the 13th Through the Looking Glass,” which might explain a one-way mirror that features in the story. Or maybe there’s no symbolism at all. The screenplay, by Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, is tricky that way.
It gives us a host of stock characters including Curt, a knucklehead jock who actually isn’t (Chris Hemsworth); Dana, a virginal coed who isn’t all that demure (Kristen Connolly), and Marty (Fran Kranz), a stoner who’s often more clearheaded than his companions. Along with the somewhat lewd co-ed Jules (Anna Hutchison) and the mildly intellectual Holden (Jesse Williams), they’re off for a getaway at the cabin of Curt’s cousin.
As their RV revs up, Curt says, “Let’s get this show on the road,” a seemingly throwaway line that gains significance as the story evolves. It’s a tiny touch, but there are 38,000 of them in this elaborately clever film. You know those creaky, grinding giant gears that appear in the promo before Lionsgate’s horror offerings? This time it actually means something. That carpet of blue-lit dry ice fog you’ve seen in so many nighttime fright scenes? You’ll never look at it the same way.
It isn’t a spoiler to note that there will be blood, but how it’s spilled, and by whom, and to what ends (and in what remarkable quantities) are classified Top Secret. There is an epic amount of hemoglobin in this film, but it is splatter shed with festive energy, in service of a ferociously clever idea. The film is at once a homage to popcorn hack-and-slash yarns and an IQ 200 critique.
It isn’t just a “Scream”-style dialogue with the genre; the questions here are intellectually ambitious, almost metaphysical. Why does every culture have its own tradition of scary stories, why do suffering characters give us pleasure, and just how powerful are the inner demons our nightmare scenarios appease?
But this is no abstruse essay film. “Cabin” is a fiendishly funny thriller. It’s chockablock with character humor. Sweet, hatchet-faced Kranz and a couple of sublimely cast costars we won’t mention are in a three-way tug of war to steal the show, and Hemsworth uses the heroic authority he developed in “Thor” to unexpected comic effect. The whole utterly unpredictable story builds to a giddy, gory climax delivered in a riot of interlocking and running gags — splat-stick.
I wish I could say that the film operates at full power throughout, but at the finale it sputters. The story slowly reveals a satirical edge that gives it political force, builds thrill-ride momentum, then hits a dead end. Still, like a Formula 1 racer that blows its engine as it crosses the finish line, it’s a helluva show.