The less said about "The Cabin in the Woods," the better, but don't cross it off your moviegoing list. By all means, put it right at the top. The best way to enjoy this unpredictable jack-in-the-box of a movie, though, is to go in unprepared.
Everything about "The Cabin in the Woods" is a delicious practical joke, from the generic title (ho-hum, more slaughtered college kids) to its incongruous opening scene (two middle-age guys at a watercooler? Is this the right theater?) to its unthinkable finale (they wouldn't! But they did). Though delayed for years by a financially troubled MGM, "The Cabin in the Woods" feels like a booby trap waiting to explode.
This much won't spoil things: "The Cabin in the Woods" does take place in one, where several collegians have come to chug beer and dip in the lake. You know them: party girl Jules (Anna Hutchison), athletic Curt (Chris Hemsworth, of "Thor"), sensitive Holden (Jesse Williams), spacey stoner Marty (a very funny Fran Kranz, currently on Broadway in "Death of a Salesman" but here channeling Shaggy from "Scooby-Doo") and studious Dana (newcomer Kristen Connolly). Want to bet who'll be the "final girl"?
Don't press your luck. Drew Goddard ("Cloverfield") directs and misdirects with a con man's confidence, and his co-writer is Joss Whedon, a veteran genre-blender since "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Even if you're smart enough to connect the dots from the underground bunker to the Kyoto schoolgirls, the visual jokes and zingy dialogue will keep you laughing aloud. (And don't forget the copious gore.)
Although not flawless, "The Cabin in the Woods" is endlessly inventive and speeds along with a giddy, infectious energy. It's a rare bait and switch where what you get is far better than what you were expecting.
PLOT Five college kids go for a weekend vacation -- but if you think you know the rest, you're dead wrong. RATING R (violence, gore, language, drug use, sexual themes)
CAST Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz.
PLAYING AT Area theaters.
BOTTOM LINE Where did this come from? Endlessly surprising and fiendishly funny, this left-field horror-comedy could become the year's first sleeper hit.
Four more: These campers weren't so happy
Teenage campers, a creepy cabin in the woods and a mad killer on the loose: It's a horror recipe as winning as chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallow. What's more (or is that s'more?), a new scream flick, "The Cabin in the Woods," opens today, hoping the formula again will kill at the box office. Here are four other cabin-and-camper movies that had audiences more petrified than the forests they were set in.
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) -- The ultimate cabin-in-the-woods movie, where horny camp counselors met a grisly end after running into hockey-masked killer Jason Vorhees.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981) -- Long before directing the "Spider-Man" movies, Sam Raimi made this gross-out grosser about teens in the forest who find a tome that unleashes a curse involving flesh-eating demons.
LAKE PLACID (1999) -- It was hard to tell which was tougher for campers at this lake resort to deal with -- the huge mouth of a man-eating crocodile or the potty mouth of lake resident Betty White.
CABIN FEVER (2002) -- Eli Roth, the hell-raiser behind "Hostel," checked in with this creepfest about college grads sharing a cabin with a flesh-eating virus. Semi-notable among the no-name cast was Jordan Ladd, granddaughter of "Shane" star Alan Ladd.
-- DANIEL BUBBEO