When you hear that Joss Whedon and his Buffy the Vampire Slayer comrade Drew Goddard have created a "meta" horror movie, you fear the worst: this is something that sneers at genre entertainment, or else panders to fans of it. At absolute best, you might think, Cabin in the Woods is a movie that will ruin you for other horror movies by making you hyper-aware of their formulas and foibles.
But I'm here to tell you that none of those things is true. Cabin in the Woods is such a well-made tribute, it will make you see the transcendent wonder in even the schlockiest genre movie. This is a love letter to movies that will renew your love for the medium.
Spoilers (but not major ones) ahead...
The other day, I was talking to a friend who goes to a lot of early screenings, and I asked her about some other new movie. "It's really good," she said. Then she paused. "I mean, not Cabin in the Woods good. But still, really good." I have a feeling you'll be hearing that a lot, said about movies that are not Cabin in the Woods.
And yet, like I said, Cabin in the Woods doesn't make other movies look bad. Not at all. A sincere love for genre movie staples suffuses every moment of this film — and the longer it goes on, the more you realize it's not simply commenting on the artificiality of horror movie conventions like "the slut dies first." There's another layer beyond that layer, and then another that. Without giving anything away, this film packs a lot of craziness that goes beyond the initial irony that it layers on top of the horror movie setup.
So now for a brief plot synopsis that will avoid real spoilers as much as possible. Cabin in the Woods follows five teenagers who take a weekend trip to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, little suspecting that — wait for it — sinister forces await them. But nothing is what it appears, and the terrible apparitions that are spilling blood all over the woods are absolutely nothing compared to the terrible conspiracy that is masterminding the bloodshed.
True to the legacy of Buffy and other similar shows, the movie is full of clever character touches that establish the movie's cast within a few moments and then set about deepening and broadening them. Including the requisite screamingly funny dialogue and insightful one-liners. You actually care what happens to these sacrificial lambs who are going up to the cabin to be slaughtered.
And it's also a very well made horror film — something that it's easy to forget after you see how much else it's doing. At the basic level of building suspense and creeping you the fuck out, this movie totally delivers, with a mastery of the techniques of spooky buildup and jump scares and dark, forboding moments. The movie manages to recreate the thing that it's poking fun at and ironizing, with an impressive devotion.
And yes, you will be wearing T-shirts and posting animated GIFs dedicated to many of the weird, funny in-jokes in this film for the next decade. There are many, many Fruity Oaty Bars-style moments of weird humor and creepy silliness, none of which will be given away here.
And this movie is so nihilistic, it becomes life-affirming. In fact, it's the most deeply nihilistic work to come out of the Mutant Enemy stable. A key theme in Whedon's work, in particular, has been one of choice and destiny, and this movie goes to some very dark, disturbing places with it — even more than Dollhouse, maybe — with characters who are trapped in a terrible story that denies their basic personhood. And yet out of that dark awfulness and soul-crushing bleakness comes a spark of hope for the individual.
In fact, when you hear "meta," you automatically assume that there's going to be a lot of "breaking the fourth wall" — but instead, this film does something much cleverer that winds up reinforcing the fourth wall. Because the more you see the main characters struggling to survive — and to be themselves — in the face of a pre-determined horror movie narrative, the more you invest in their struggle and the more you believe in them as something more than actors in a fictional work. All of the layers of irony in this film did nothing to tear me away from the main characters, or stop me from rooting for them, which is actually a pretty incredible achievement in itself.
We tend to think of genres as a vehicle for telling stories — and each vehicle comes with its own types of limitations, including how fast it can go, and how much freedom of movement it allows. But Cabin in the Woods portrays genre, instead, as something that will run you over unless you can get out of the way. And yet, the movie ultimately reveals, genres don't just exist as a more convenient way of getting from A to B, but as a way to reveal things that are true, at a much deeper level beyond the reach of TVTropes.
All the cleverness, all the quotable dialogue, all the clever twists, are at the service of a compelling story about the deepest horror of all — the fear that we're really not the masters of our own world, and that we don't really understand as much as we think we do. And that our attempts to understand, to codify, to regulate everything via culture, turns us into colossal cosmic dicks.
Cabin in the Woods shows you that movies can do much more than what we usually expect of them — but because of its exhilarating love letter to genre movies in general, it will also make you remember why you still adore movies that do much less.