Before we continue I have to tell you that this review will avoid spoilers like the plague infested hordes of the undead. This is because the less you know about the film going into it, the better the experience you’ll have. Some of the trailers walked a little too close to the line, revealed a little too much about the machinations Whedon and Goddard weave around the genre conventions at play. Trust me – you’ll thank me for it. When you’ve seen it (and you really should see it) we’ll talk spoilers; it’s almost a given that people will want to talk about this film.
The set-up is as classic as they come, but the group of teen horror standards (the jock, the virgin, the whore, the stoner, etc) are given Whedon’s spin and play just far enough away from type to instantly draw you to them. Together they head out of town to a relative’s cabin for the weekend, meeting the creepy gas station attendant on the way who has his words of warning for them and we know exactly what’s being set up. Chris Hemsworth, Thor in Whedon’s The Avengers, pops up here, making the most of his square jaw and likable oafishness, Fran Kranz turns up fresh from Dollhouse and has a lot of fun playing the idle stoner who may just be a genius and Kristen Connolly plays the feisty yet innocent girl so often found in Whedon’s work. They are engaging and crucially they aren’t smug. We are now beyond Scream’s knowing gaggle of corpses-to-be and instead of retreating to the safe ground of gorestravaganza we peep further behind the curtain of the horror genre.
At times there are echoes of Whedon’s work on TV, and if you’re a fan then you’ll be able to spot these quickly, but this is far more than an extended Buffy episode – this is a clever, witty and surprising horror film which shuts you in a room, offers the comforting sight of pretty teens in an isolated cabin beset by nasties and then doesn’t so much pull the rug out as rip the floor from beneath your feet. It kicks you right in the comfort zone and as the film breaks into its final third you have no idea where you are heading and it makes for an exhilarating experience.
The central idea is typical of Whedon and comes from the same subversion of genre that spawned Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only here its scope and ambition is far greater. There are some very funny moments as you’d expect, Bradley Whitford providing a lot of these, handling a morally duplicity with a deft touch, a role he clearly relishes. It’s not quite the perfect film, the final moments may be too much for people to take (I thought it was both brave and ingenious) however when you aim to create an effective horror film and, at the same time, look to add a new dimension to the genre there are moments when the ground seems a little uneven.
What makes the film is the hold Goddard keeps to the conventions we are so familiar with and when the turn comes and the bigger picture reveals itself it is precisely because we are so taken in that the final twist of the knife has such power. It’s a refreshing take on a well-worn genre, sparkling with Whedon’s generous wit and ability to draw us into his game with the promise of something new and exciting. Certainly one of my favourite films of the year so far and a must-see for anyone wanting to be genuinely shocked by the places a walk in a dark, dark wood can take you.