This year’s festival bumpers, the short here-you-are-at-SXSW trailers that play before every movie, take as their theme, “How Not to Be Lame at SXSW,” and are well-constructed inside jokes featuring references to local and festival traditions, panel and Q&A etiquette—don’t shout out multiple dumb questions, or ramble through your resume; be careful dissing a film because you never know if the director is at the next urinal; eat lots of migas breakfast tacos.
Speaking of inside jokes everyone gets, this year’s opening night film was The Cabin in the Woods, from cowriter-director Drew Goddard and cowriter-poducer Joss Whedon. On the old Buffy the Vampire Slayer forums, posters used to refer to staff writer Goddard as “Ultimate Drew,” after his propensity for the epic kill-off; it’s a sobriquet earned all over again in this aggressively knowing, ultimately all-encompassing take on slasher-movie archetypes.
In the film, a demure redhead, her pneumatic bleached-blonde roommate, the captain of the football team, a bespectacled African-American and a comic-relief stoner pile into the camper van for a weekend of secluded, rustic hedonism, stopping to ask directions from a mottled, tobacco-spitting gas-station owner rasping apocalyptic prophecies. Once at the house, slutty truth-or-dare is interrupted by a trip down to the basement, where the film comes down with self-induced trope overload—talismans vaguely, or explicitly, familiar from horror movies past, all picked up and fondled by the fatally curious kids.
In between snappy one-liner give-and-take with a full house at the post-screening Q&A, a very buzz-cut Joss Whedon suggested that the less said about the film, the better, a directive that fans, based on an unscientific sample of overheard conversations, seem eager to respect; indeed, much of the movie’s pleasure, for better and for worse, comes from figuring it out for yourself, so feel free to skip to the last graf.
The film is self-aware about audience expectations, and self-referential in the way familiar types are punched up to the nth degree—it’s frequently both at once, as when the main plot begins by peering in through an open window at a co-ed in just-hanging-around-in-my-bedroom-in-my-good-panties attire. It’s also, perhaps inevitably given its pop-savant pedigree, self-referential in far more explicit ways: the action is monitored and, it emerges, manipulated by a mysterious team of technicians, led by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins (having the time of their lives), whose bloodlust and heartless running commentary would earn them a spot on any fan’s couch; they’re working, it appears, on behalf of a mysterious “director,” who is additionally responsible to a very demanding audience.
All this, or at least all of it up to the unmodulated free-for-all climax, is made palatable by snarky banter and creative, proficient weirdness (the slutty first kill doesn’t just do a striptease, she makes out with a taxidermied wolf’s head mounted on the wall; big ups to the very game Kiwi actress Anna Hutchison, who wallows in sexy self-parody). This is hardly new, of course, even if you have a short memory—the Wright-Pegg-Frost axis has lately created a cottage-and-convention industry out of having their genre-movie kicks and being clever about them too. (Pegg, Frost, and Greg Mottola’s Paul is an especially apropos comparison, for a reason too specific for even me to spoil). And the smartest-kids-in-the-room team spirit is a welcome carryover from Whedon’s TV legacy. But it’s hard to imagine a movie better suited, in its flattering familiarity and explanations that come one step behind the , for the wildly receptive audience which greeted it on Opening Night: The Cabin in the Woods assures you that you’re smarter than the movie, because it is, too.