A horror film can aim for straight-up shocks. It can be tweaked for laughs: Think “Scary Movie” (and its many sequels). Or horror might subvert the tired conventions of its genre, a la “Scream” (and that film’s many progeny).
Here comes “The Cabin in the Woods,” opening Friday. At first glimpse, this meta-horror project straight from the belly of Joss Whedon and his protégée Drew Goddard reads like any contemporary babes-in-the-woods scenario. Five college kids are picked off, one-by-one, by creatures that go slash in the night.
But the filmmakers have concocted something else, it seems — a multi-species hybrid inhabiting the sweet spot of engagement, entertainment, and social commentary. The recipe: one part giddy fright-flick, one part gut-buster, one part subterfuge.
“I’m so interested in multiple genres and not being any one thing,” said Goddard, the director, in a telephone interview from Minneapolis. “With ‘Cabin,’ it’s a very thin needle we are trying to thread.” Goddard, a first-time director who began his career in a “dream come true job” writing for Whedon’s TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” co-wrote the film with his former mentor and boss (who also produced).
“I started as the world’s biggest Joss Whedon fan,” remembered Goddard, 37. “When I first saw ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ in college, it was like a bomb went off.” He went on to write and produce shows such as “Angel,” “Alias,” and “Lost,” and wrote the screenplay for “Cloverfield.”
With “Cabin,” Goddard now fully melds with the “Whedonverse,” a world of fandom driven by devotion, that includes “Buffy,” “Firefly,” “Dollhouse” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
“ ‘Cabin’ was just the two of us trying to entertain each other,” Goddard said. “We were just two guys talking about how much they loved horror films and wanting to make one of their own.”
Clearly, the writing team wanted to poke fun at the horror premise that youth are pigeonholed and punished for their bad behavior. In “Cabin,” the archetypes under the microscope include the sexpot (Anna Hutchison), the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the brainy nerd (Jesse Williams), the virgin (Kristen Connolly), and the goofy, pot-smoking freak (Fran Kranz). As the quintet makes itself at home in an isolated love and party shack, bad stuff happens.
Shot in early 2009, “Cabin” languished for two years on the shelf as MGM went bankrupt; last year, Lionsgate, the company behind “The Hunger Games,”acquired the film. Since then, Hemsworth has starred in “Thor” and next month will be in “The Avengers” (Whedon’s adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero team).
The core issue, Goddard said, was nailing the film’s tone. “It’s not like they give you a manual,” he said. “I just have to say, yes it’s OK to be funny here, but it’s not OK to be funny here. And just go with your gut.”
Helping Goddard find the film’s mood was landing cinematographer Peter Deming, who shot “Evil Dead II,” “Mulholland Drive,” two “Austin Powers” films and the “Scream” series. “Our movie is sort of in the Venn diagram of those four films,” Goddard said, “right in the middle of that.” Serious funnymen Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) and Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) added more complex flavors.
While it’s tricky to talk plot without leaking spoilers, the trailer to “Cabin” does reveal some clues. A hand moves a lever, an eagle disintegrates into a force field, and the five students appear on video screens. A control-room voice says, “Lock ’em in.” To prep, viewers might want to brush up on their Dungeons & Dragons “Monster Manual,” as well as the “Alien” franchise.
While there’s fun to be had with genre conventions, Goddard is interested in why our culture marginalizes, objectifies, and even destroys youth, as exemplified by the horror genre.
“We have this unhealthy fascination with what it is to be young,” Goddard said. “Let’s build up this young socialite and worship her and give her her own show and then absolutely destroy her. ... And I feel it as I get older. I feel that need to dismiss youth. And I question where that comes from.”
On the side of virginal youth, Connolly (from TV soaps “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns”) now joins the much-vaunted lineage of Whedon heroines, going back to Sarah Michelle Gellar. The prospect does not daunt her.
“The thing that’s so cool about Joss is that you know you’re taken care of, because he just writes everything so well and he’s so smart,” Connolly said during an interview at Boston’s Liberty Hotel. “And his characters are so wonderful. I think that’s part of the reason the Whedonverse exists. ... He writes about people who have an inner strength that maybe you don’t see right away. That touches people.”
As for Kranz, the genre’s horror “stereotypes emerge even as we’re playing against [them].” The actor plays his stoner as a fifth-wheel Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo,” providing comic relief, at least at first. Kranz, who also appeared in “Dollhouse,” can currently be seen in the Mike Nichols-directed Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman.” He said he figured acting in a made-to-order cult movie or B-movie send-up would be a snap. But his role was harder than he expected. “To play terrified and exhausted, it’s tough. I have a new respect for actors in horror films.”
Perhaps more so than other films, “The Cabin in the Woods” has to deliver not simply “the goods” but multiple goods. It has to have smarts, scares, and suspense. Amid the current taste for torture-porn, it must slake the hardcore fan’s thirst for blood and gore. And it should carve out its own identify without offending the legions of Whedon fans.
Fran Kranz isn’t concerned. “I think with this one, I feel like I’m pretty safe to say, the Whedonverse is going to embrace this movie,” he said. “As much as some of these characters appear to be those stock characters from a horror film, it is a Whedon movie and they are more than what you think.”