[Warning: Contains mild first-act spoilers after the jump]
By teaming up with his old Buffy and Angel boss Joss Whedon, however, Goddard got a second chance to say something with horror, and The Cabin in the Woods truly delivers on his promise. At times recalling Sam Raimi's 2009 return-to-form Drag Me to Hell, The Cabin in the Woods differs from that film, and other self-aware horror movies, by not merely calling attention to horror tropes but breaking them down, working out how they apply to the genre, as well as how filmmakers (and participatory audiences) apply them to it. To oversimplify it into a pitch, where movies such as Drag Me to Hell or the Scream series are about horror films, The Cabin in the Woods is about horror itself.
Unlike the first-person perspective satire of Cloverfield, Cabin in the Woods pulls back to get a fuller picture of its subject. The two do, however, share an inversion of expectations in their narrative focus. Cloverfield's overwhelmed shaky-cam cared less for the monster than the characters. Awful, wafer-thin characters, sure, but there was something radical about this shift in attention. Likewise, The Cabin in the Woods, named after a subgenre in which young people find themselves trapped in the middle of nowhere as monsters thin their ranks, does not even open with the group of undergrads traveling to the titular, doomed getaway. Instead, it begins with two middle-aged officials (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in some mysterious, vast compound. It's a bewildering start, but one that instantly lets the audience know that something is up, which is confirmed when the film then moves to its quintet of young people prepping for their weekend trip and the camera quickly pulls back to reveal that the kids are being closely monitored. With Cloverfield, Goddard made an epic subgenre intimate; with this, he makes a visceral subgenre analytical and observant.
The omniscient third-person suits him. Goddard and Whedon waste no time poking fun at conventions, presenting the thick-headed jock (Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) as a kind, intelligent person and gradually suggesting the the tag-along stoner (Fran Kanz, more at home here than as a similarly snide character on Dollhouse) is more aware of the situation than his sober pals. The events that happen to these people at the cabin are also handled humorously, using both subtle visualization and open reference to call out some of the sillier aspects of this kind of movie. Had the film remained on this level, its cheek would have been funny, but hardly revelatory. By taking in a larger picture, Goddard can move beyond lazy reflexive humor into true metatextual insight.
I wouldn't dare spoil what's really going on at that cabin or the reason for people spying on the youths trapped in it, other than to say that the Rex Reed is entirely off-base when he asserts the film is about people paying to watch death. (Did he get it confused with The Hunger Games? Who the fuck knows, it's Rex Reed.) Yet from a certain point of view, I can almost see where he's coming from: watching Whitford and Jenkins watch the kids makes them a part of the audience. Their alternating attachment to what happens oscillates between a bloodthirsty desire to see their deaths, a desensitized lack of response to those deaths when they come, and even a certain affection for the characters. But they also resemble Hollywood producers, some of their actions giving the impression that they want to put on a good show. At one point, Whitford rhetorically complains, "Remember when you could just throw a girl in a volano?"as if pining for a simpler time of orchestrated killing. Come to think of it, The Cabin in the Woods wouldn't make an awful double-bill with The Hunger Games, even if Cabin's aims go well beyond the unfocused social commentary of 2012's first mega-hit.
I once read somewhere that the main storytelling genres (action, comedy, drama, and horror) are all means of dealing with human fears and anxieties. Drama allows us to assess that fear, action to “conquer” it, and comedy to mock it. But horror is the purest visceral experience of those fears, which are magnified and personified and, most often, triumphant over the people they affect. If action allows us to vicariously defeat our terror, horror allows the inverse, the safe experience of being consumed by our demons. It is that element of punishment of the self through others that drives to Cabin in the Woods, and its ultimate twist reveal uses a primal justification for its terrors to suggest why people go to horror movies in the first place. As openly critical of certain aspects of the genre as the film is, this unexpected poignancy serves as a better love-letter than most broad pastiches, as it pinpoints where the affection for the genre comes from.
I have minor quibbles with Cabin in the Woods. Goddard's direction can be overly murky in its nighttime shots outside the cabin, obscuring the action and sapping the tension already lowered by audience foreknowledge of what's going to happen. And when the film opens up in its final act, it ironically seems to lose the thread of its commentary, moving instead to the setup of a punchline that makes a wry joke of the films's more probing thoughts on the necessity of scares and monsters in our lives. It's a clever way to undermine any lecturing tone, but I wonder if Goddard and Whedon didn't simply give in to their id and just go crazy. Given that the film critiques popular trends in horror, I also wish it had more to say about the new crop of found-footage horror, though as the film was shot in 2009 and shelved during MGM's bankruptcy dealings, I suppose it just managed to miss the post-Paranormal Activity explosion of cheap, tacky supernatural scares.
Nevertheless, The Cabin in the Woods manages to live up to its hype, which was so pervasive I'm amazed I managed not to read a single thing about it, even unwittingly, before seeing it. Buoyed by strong, game performances (and check out Angel's Amy Acker in small but engaging supporting role!) and sharp writing, it's simply a blast to sit and experience. A late sequence in which all hell breaks loose is bound to be one of the best setpieces of the year, a chaotic but controlled free-for-all that unleashes a flood of nightmares in carnage that is as deliberately ridiculous as it is disturbing. Beyond its surface-level pleasures, however, this is also one of the few pieces of film-as-criticism in contemporary American cinema, alongside Gamer and Speed Racer. Granted, it's the most obvious and easily digestible of the bunch, but if Rex Reed's review is anything to go by, Goddard's film is still sly enough to throw at least one buffoon.