There are plenty of surprises, though, most of the kills happen in an unexpected moment. Holden’s (Jesse Williams) death is a genuine surprise and nicely foreshadowed a few innocuous cuts earlier. Marty’s (Fran Kranz) return from the dead is pleasantly unexpected and drives the third act of the film forward. He is probably the most sympathetic character for most of this film’s target audience, and having him back was a pleasure and a relief.
There are a few character surprises, too. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the protypical alpha jock, is revealed to be a great student and usually more of a quiet guy. Jules (Anna Hutchinson), is mostly the standard blonde sexpot, so the most unexpected thing with her is how soon she meets her doom. The constant ambiguity about Dana’s (Kristen Connolly) virginity is a successful running joke. Most importantly, the performances of the group treat the script with dexterity. They know they are crossing a ledge between camp and creep and never topple over the edge. The great joke and the great surprise is that they out-act most actors in serious mainstream horror films. As ridiculous as the film may get, they treat it as the audience might, with grim acceptance and humor.
The special effects are a key part of any creature feature. The Cabin in the Woods wisely treats the creatures with respect and style. The Buckner redneck zombie family all look plenty spooky and dead and could just as well come from a Rob Zombie film. They make it clear that they are not supposed to be funny. Unfortunately, once the Pandora’s Box of monsters is opened, the attention to detail slips a few steps. Reptilius is cool, but looks a little too close to any number of SyFy critters of the week. Likewise, the Wraith has a cheap look about it, which is only made starker by the accomplished looks of the Werewolf, the Sugarplum Fairy, and Merman.
Perhaps this is a subtle dig at CGI, but I expect it’s more an unfortunate result of reliance on CGI. I was disappointed that the Hell Demon struck me as more of a cheap rip-off of Pinhead than an original creature design. Pinhead deserves his due, but this creature looked like a poor imitation dreamt up by a desperate producer. A judgment that clearly doesn’t apply to The Cabin in the Woods’ horror loving filmmakers. The final Ancient One was more Troll Hunter than The Call of Cthulu, and that has good points and bad. Didn’t we all really want to see a mass of tentacles break out of the ground? Maybe a kaiju?