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SXSW: The year's buzziest fright flick

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”I still smell the blood in my sleep,” says Drew Goddard. The filmmaker is talking about the psychic aftershocks of shooting his debut movie, The Cabin in the Woods, a horror comedy he co-wrote with Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon. The fact that Goddard’s subconscious is still being haunted in this fashion is an impressive testament to the sheer volume of fake red stuff in his movie, which stars Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Whitford, and Richard Jenkins. Goddard actually shot Cabin way back in 2009, only to see its release delayed by more than two years thanks to the bankruptcy of the film’s original studio, MGM. That’s long enough for Hemsworth to have played the role of Thor twice, the second time in Whedon’s Avengers, which arrives in cinemas just three weeks after Cabin. ”I got the Cabin in the Woods script and went, ‘Oh my God, this is f—ing awesome,”’ says the actor. ”We shot the film and had an amazing time, and then it disappeared for three years.”

That waiting game officially ended on March 9, when the gloriously grotesque Cabin opened at South by Southwest (the music and film mega-festival held in Austin March 9–18). The film was received rapturously at the city’s Paramount Theatre — so much so that at the post-screening Q&A, Goddard admitted he was close to tears. ”It did feel like a rock concert,” says Jenkins, who attended the event with Goddard, Whedon, and several other cast members. ”People were so pumped.”

And with good reason. The basic plot is far from revolutionary: Bad things happen to five college kids when they drive out to a you-know-what in the you-know-where. But that’s almost beside the point. During the course of the twist-packed movie, Whedon and Goddard shuffle the horror deck with a demented enthusiasm not seen since Scream. As Whitford says, ”It was clear when you read the script that this was a fierce, idiosyncratic vision.” Indeed, the truly remarkable thing about Cabin is not that it took three years to arrive on screens but that its pair of creators thought anyone would let them make it in the first place.

Goddard and Whedon are longtime friends and collaborators, the former having scripted episodes of Buffy and its spin-off, Angel. The two habitually meet up to chat about movies over drinks, and in the spring of 2007 Whedon told Goddard that he had an idea for ”a cabin movie,” the horror subgenre including The Evil Dead and Friday the 13th. ”I lit up,” recalls Goddard, who wrote the J.J. Abrams-produced 2008 monster movie Cloverfield. While invoking — and playing with — classic horror tropes, the duo also envisioned the film as an alternative to ”torture porn” movies like Hostel and Saw. ”We’ve had a growing disconnect between watching people getting murdered and ‘horror,’ which is not actually about murder,” says Whedon. ”It can contain murder, but it’s not limited to it. We wanted to go back to old-school thrilling scares.”

The pair were aware studio executives might be tempted to tinker with their script’s unusual plot machinations, and traveled as far down the development path as they could before shopping the project around. ”We did the budgets, figured out the schedule,” recalls Goddard. ”We did all the legwork and said, ‘This is the package, take it or leave it.’ Because this is the type of movie that can easily get killed by committee. Luckily, people got it.”

In July 2008, MGM announced it had acquired and greenlit the Cabin script. The project was further developed at MGM’s subsidiary United Artists, which was being partly overseen by Tom Cruise. As a result, Goddard and Whedon found themselves in the unusual position of receiving notes from Jerry Maguire. ”That was definitely one of those surreal experiences,” says Goddard. ”He was so excited about the script and really just pointed out scenes in the movie that he felt we should bring out more. And he was totally right.”

In traditional horror-movie style, Goddard cast up-and-comers to play his five archetypal hero-victims. Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams won the role of the studious Holden; New Zealand actress Anna Hutchison secured the part of blond party girl Jules; Guiding Light graduate Kristen Connolly was hired to portray the virginal Dana; and Fran Kranz from the Whedon-created Dollhouse was cast as the conspiracy-obsessed stoner Marty. That role required Kranz to perfect his joint-rolling skills once preproduction began in Vancouver in early 2009. ”When you do a movie, you want to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m learning to ride horses and archery’ or whatever,” says the actor. ”I would just smoke different types of fake weed.”

Goddard cast the then relatively unknown Hemsworth to play the film’s jock, Curt. ”We probably saw over 100 people for that role,” says Goddard. ”I was looking for actors that can break your heart. He just had that. As soon as he walked out of the room I said, ‘That guy’s got the job.”’

Hemsworth’s future-star status was confirmed during the Vancouver shoot when he landed the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor. How did it happen? ”Drew and Joss said to me, ‘Why the hell aren’t you playing Thor?”’ Hemsworth recalls. ”I said, ‘I don’t know. I had an audition and it went nowhere. Joss [spoke to] Kenneth Branagh and said some great things, and that got me back in the game.”

Despite Goddard and Whedon’s best attempts to head off studio tinkering, MGM did have a couple of thoughts once the movie was edited together. Thoughts like ”Hey, could this film be 3-D?” ”We have seen the 3-D craze come and go over the course of this movie,” laughs Goddard. ”You know, Avatar came out after we shot it. There was a period there where every studio wanted to make everything 3-D. Certainly they tried with us.” Whedon explains that ”the conversation never finished because of the bankruptcy.”

In November 2010, debt-ridden MGM filed a Chapter 11 petition in bankruptcy court and Cabin was placed on the shelf. Goddard says it soon became clear that the movie was not the top priority in terms of being disentangled from the MGM mess. ”It wasn’t just us,” says the director. ”It was The Hobbit, it was James Bond. If they’re taking a while [to deal with those projects] we know, ‘Oh, it’s going to take us a while.”’

Finally, in April of last year, Lionsgate announced it had picked up the movie’s distribution rights. Whedon says he is well aware of the irony that the company is home to both the Saw and the Hostel franchises. ”It is actually perfect that it’s them,” he says. ”Not despite the fact that they’ve released some of the movies this is a reaction to, but because they have. Cabin is an insane frolic in some ways, but it is a horror movie. Their passion for horror is a great match.”

According to Goddard, it was Lionsgate’s idea to debut the film at SXSW more than a month before the movie’s April 13 release. ”Lionsgate essentially said, ‘Let’s just start showing this movie to people and let that be our biggest marketing tool,”’ says the director. ”Because I deal with mystery a lot, that felt new to me. But they’ve been 100 percent right.”

The reviews that followed the SXSW screening were almost as ecstatic as the reception it got inside the Paramount Theatre (you know you’ve done something right if your film gets thumbs up from both Fangoria and NPR.org). Happily, critics seemed determined to heed Whedon’s prescreening plea that audience members ”enjoy it, and then sorta keep it to yourself.”

Of course, with Cabin‘s release date still weeks away, there’s time for people to let at least a few of the film’s herd of cats out of the bag. But it doesn’t seem to be a concern that’s interrupting Goddard’s faux-hemoglobin-filled dreams: ”It’s not a movie that is based on one twist. I’m much more interested in escalation,” he says. ”I like people to put all their cards on the table…and start stabbing each other over them!”

Joss’ Horror Hall of Fame
The Cabin in the Woods co-writer Joss Whedon on the classics that influenced his twisted new movie

A Nightmare on Elm Street
Whedon calls its premise ”extraordinarily smart.” Also? The 1984 film’s star Heather Langenkamp co-owns the company that oversaw many of Cabin’s effects: ”She was a good-luck talisman.”

Halloween
Whedon is a huge fan of ’70s- and ’80s-era horror and admits he and Cabin co-writer Drew Goddard took inspiration from John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 slasher movie.

Night of the Living Dead
Another touchstone was George A. Romero’s original zombie trilogy, which began with this 1968 shocker. ”He’s still the only person who really understands the zombie genre.”

The Evil Dead
”It’s a film that goes insane,” says Whedon of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cabin-in-the-woods-set gorefest. The same could be said for Cabin, which was shot by Evil Dead II director of photography Peter Deming.

(Additional reporting by Adam B. Vary)

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