The Cabin in the Woods, among other things, is a remarkable film about the act of making and watching a film. And it manages to deliver all three of the things that esteemed philosopher/critic/Vanderbilt graduate Joe Bob Briggs proclaimed necessary for quality cinema: blood, breasts and beasts.
Five college students off to spend a weekend by the lake — it's an archetype that immediately strikes fear into the hearts of viewers. For an American audience, that means spam in a cabin (or worse, the mid-'90s glut of "twentysomethings talk about their feelings" films).
So imagine, then, that everything you'd ever assumed about horror films was off base. Think of this as a forensic approach to horror, focusing on the How and the Why rather than the Who. And let's allow that this particular film makes a case for the grand tradition of horror, covering everything from Babylonian ritual sacrifice through classic Grand Guignol all the way to Wes Craven's New Nightmare. The opening credits alone take us through several ancient civilizations' worth of slasher traditions, so we're ready for anything — which is fortunate, because that's exactly what co-writer Joss Whedon and director/co-writer Drew Goddard have in store.
Now, since you've either seen the film or don't care about spoilers, let's get down to business.
The Cabin in the Woods picks at some of the same queasy questions about our love of horror movies as the beginning of Scream 2, just in a more abstract and expansive fashion. Scream 2's approach is to set fantasy and reality in direct opposition, with a harmless horror movie yielding to real-world bloodshed, the onscreen audience's traumatized reaction to this shift sets up a moral complexity the rest of the movie never lives up to. Cabin instead posits slasher-movie conventions as part of a ritual old as time, myth and storytelling, conducted for Ancient Gods who demand archetypal sacrifice. They're also for the benefit of us viewers, whose attendance demands tribute.
The film's portrayal of its target audience is interesting. It's at times flattering and sympathetic — witness the character of Marty (Fran Kranz), the bong-stoked Fool who nonetheless wises up first to what's happening — yet also solipsistic and selfish (in accordance with the rules of horror cinema, which in some way must justify their slaughter). At the same time, the film tears apart almost inadvertently the mechanism of reality TV. Watch how the five sacrificial lambs are dumbed down, through chemicals and manipulation, into becoming their chosen archetypes — what is demanded is no innovation, just the same scenario served up again and again. There is a hell, an endless loop of diminishing returns, and it's Season One of MTV's The Real World.
How strange, then, that a film so concerned with archetypes and formulae should seem so liberating. In the movie's crazily inventive final third — essentially Charlie Kaufman's Sleepaway Camp — things get cosmically awesome, in senses both fanboyish and divine. The stakes are higher than we'd imagined, and likewise the circumstances are much weirder. It should be enough to say that the film has a unicorn that likes to get stabby. When the master of ceremonies is revealed, who else should it be but Sigourney Weaver, whose most iconic role — that of Ellen Ripley, star of her own horror franchise (including the Whedon-scripted Alien: Resurrection) — has been altered and remade at the behest of the Ancient Gods (meaning us)?
The implications of our pleasure in these rituals, the sadism along with the reassuring monotony, would be almost too unpleasant to bear, if only this critique in a candy shell of mindless cruelty weren't so damned enjoyable. The Cabin in the Woods climaxes with the heroes setting loose thousands of caged cinematic nightmares, a kind of bogeyman vending machine stocked with everything from Hellraiser's Pinhead to the twin apparitions from The Shining. For genre fans watching these subgenres and plot signifiers mix it up, it's as if a mad botanist had decided to scramble every fruitful strain of pollen in a vast orchard. On Goddard and Whedon's leveled playing field, giant critters and psychosexual demigods and rampaging serial killers — and yes, angry molesting trees — all have equal footing to vault into the subconscious.