Okay, kids, you want to see a movie where a group of unsuspecting victims get killed? First we'll start with the attractive young people you've seen tortured and murdered in a thousand other horror movies. Then we'll move on to the slaughter of an organization full of arrogant puppetmasters using their own tools of destruction against them. Then we'll just kill everybody! And really, that's about the most honest ending to a slasher film I think there could possibly be, fulfilling the audience's bloodlust beyond the point of absurdity.
The fact that the film's creators, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, so glibly throw this in the audience's faces is one of the reasons why I think so many gore-hungry viewers have come away from the film so upset. Not only is the movie's initial premise subverted from the opening frames of the film, it keeps being subverted as the stakes change and more details emerge. It refuses to follow the rules of an old-school slasher movie. Then it refuses to follow the rules of a "torture porn" scenario that features more institutional, bureaucratized horrors. Finally, when everything is revealed to be rooted in the ancient patterns of ritual sacrifice, it doesn't play along with that either. Nobody heroically sacrifices themselves or finds a substitute at the last second. The heroes choose to let the world end, using logic that is just as silly as anything else in the movie, but which makes perfect sense in context.
And along the way, we're treated to all manner of horror satire and deconstruction, from the five chosen victims needing to be drugged and manipulated to fit the archetypes required by the sacrifice, to Bradley Whitford gunning down monsters like a pro, shortly before being killed by the very merman he always wanted to see in action. The filmmakers show that they're perfectly capable of following the standard formula and improving on it, creating five perfectly sympathetic, smart, interesting kids who don't actually fit the usual horror clichés. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and Holden (Jesse Williams) could both be either the Athlete or Scholar. And it's hinted that there may not be all that much difference between Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Jules (Anna Hutchinson), who get the Whore and Virgin labels slapped on them, either. And I think that's why the film actually works as a straightforward narrative, on its own terms, in addition to being a great piece of metacriticism of the horror genre.
And I do so adore the metacriticism. All the snarky, inside-baseball scenes with Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) were fantastic. The moment the two of them showed up on screen, kvetching over a childproofed kitchen, the movie had me. I've always loved that Whedon and Goddard tend to humanize their villains, in this case turning the sinister, faceless puppetmasters behind the mechanisms of death, into familiar office drones, complete with interdepartmental rivalries and a hapless intern named Ronald (Tom Lenk). It also creates such obvious, unapologetic geek fodder, with the white board full of monsters, and a cellar full of junk, just waiting to be cross-indexed by enterprising fans. The humor is so well-observed, so black, and so merciless, it's difficult to compare "Cabin in the Woods" to other satires like "Sean of the Dead," "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil," and "Scream," which were more celebratory of the films they skewered. There's much more malevolence toward the horror genre in "Cabin in the Woods," which can get downright gleeful about turning the audience's expectations against them.
The film is far from perfect. I liked Fran Kranz in "Dollhouse," but as Marty the stoner, he goes a little too far over the top too often. Sigourney Weaver's Director is not set up well at all. Obvious plot holes abound, like why the people in charge of the facility would leave an important control room unguarded, or make it so easy to access a big, honking, "purge system" button. And is there really a chemical that can make someone change his mind on cue? But that kind of loose logic also yields great moments like the phone call with Mordecai (Tim de Zarn), and everything involving Marty's telescoping travel mug bong. So what, if no one bothers to explain how Marty managed to escape detection and pretend he was dead? Why waste the time on exposition when there are more quips to be had?
Clearly not everyone will appreciate "Cabin in the Woods." You need a pretty sick sense of humor to enjoy some of the atrocities the movie depicts, and you need to be pretty genre-savvy to appreciate the layers of commentary and reference. Happily, I meet both requirements, and the movie worked for me in the best way. I'm already pretty sure that "Cabin in the Woods" will turn out to be one of my favorites of the whole year.