It always seems like it would be a good idea to switch genres mid-film. To draw people in with one thing, then provide a real surprise by having the movie turn out to be something else entirely. However, it often doesn't work out in reality, as the audience feels snookered, and like they didn't get the film they paid to see. One of the best examples is Malice, which draws you in as a serial killer thriller, but halfway through turns into a noir. Rather than being delighted at the surprise, one feels cheated. The Cabin in the Woods is trying to do the same thing, but it avoids the bamboozled feeling by telling the audience up front--even as early as the trailers--that it's operating on at least two levels.
This is by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, and Drew Goddard, who worked with Whedon extensively on Buffy spin-off Angel. So we have two smart guys, interested in horror as well as storytelling, and they're going to deliver a big exploration of horror film storytelling, and do it in such a knowing way that we remain involved in both levels. They largely succeed. We open with these middle-aged office workers, white suits and ties, heading into this big control room. They are accompanied by Amy Acker, who Angel fans will recall as Fred from that show, and arguably the best thing to emerge from it. Unfortunately she has very little to do here, but it's nice to see her anyway. Then we join five college kids heading out into the woods for a party weekend, observed by a guy on the roof, who calls back to the control room that the plan is in motion.
The kids are, quite purposely, the typical horror-movie lot, jock, hot girl, virginal girl, smart guy, and stoner. They head to the cabin, stopping at the obligatory creepy gas station with the frightening redneck attendant. The obligatory nature of this is exactly the point, as the guy is there precisely because he's always there in horror movies. They then drive through a tunnel, and we see a bird flying around. The bird smashes into an invisible electric wall, and we see the kids emerge, inside this protected area. So the film has its cards on the table: the kids are entering into this controlled, high-tech environment. They don't know it, but we do.
The cabin of the title is straight out of The Evil Dead. After some expository exploring, and some establishing that the kids are drunk and partying (watch for the tension-filled wolf kiss), the door to the Evil Dead-esque cellar opens. They go down and find a number of objects from horror films; a spherical lockbox akin to the one from Hellraiser, a haunted locket, and an old diary with Latin incantations (from Equinox and Evil Dead), etc. They end up reading the incantations, which raises the zombies of the family that lived in the cabin at the turn of the century. Soon the jock and the hot girl go out into the woods. The guys in the control room, monitoring the whole thing, release pheromones to make the kids horny, and raise the heat of the woods to encourage them to take off their clothes. When the girl complains that it's too dark, they raise the lights. The kids get to it, and soon enough encounter the murderous zombies.
So we stay on both levels, in the horror film, and coming out to see the guys controlling the horror film. The movie skates through both easily by including a ton of humor, reacting callously to the kids' terror, which mirrors our usual reaction as observers of horror films: those dumb, horny kids deserve what they get. The distancing effect makes it difficult for the horror to actually be disturbing, although it does manage to remain involving in a jump-scare way. Eventually the two threads are brought together, in a manner that I thought paid off the premise and didn't make one feel cheated. There is a nice sequence in which the energy goes up, and up, and then: chaos explodes. It goes from over-the-top to total melee in a very fun way that provides the visceral action--real action, not we're-just-engineering-this action--that is exactly what the movie needs to keep it from being a removed, meta genre exploration. A final explanation is provided, which would not be incongruous with Angel's universe, and while having everything explained can't help but deflate the curiosity engendered by the beginning, the stakes are big enough that one doesn't feel completely let down.
A lot of the fun comes from the loving tweaking of horror film clichés and plethora of references. Evil Dead, Hellraiser and Dawn of the Dead receive the most prominent references, and you can just sit there and identify all the movies it's tweaking. When the New York Times says "Not content to deliver a horror movie, they deliver EVERY horror movie" they aren't really kidding. And the fun of the movie--if you're up for enjoying it at this level--is that picking apart of horror situations and clichés. It's ambitious, and the point is to enjoy it simultaneously for its thrills and commentary. Taking a look at the IMDb, it would seem that about a third of commenters didn’t like it [while numerous others are saying it’s the best thing they have ever seen]. However, the amount of spelling and grammar errors in the reviews of those who hated it might point to the real issue affecting their judgment.
But do I LOVE it? Not quite. The problem with meta movies is that they hit you in your brain, not your heart or pulse, which precludes the kind of emotional experience that I think really accounts for movie love. Many critics [who are not big horror fans] are somewhat tepid on it, and while I definitely admire it and would encourage anyone to see it, it didn’t engage my emotions enough to make it a total favorite. My friend was even a bit more tepid. Its saving grace is that it’s so funny, which papers over the cracks between the two genres. But this is one you admire more than are carried away by.
The movie supports many interpretations, and is throwing off commentary left and right, but ultimately one emerges: Whedon and Goddard are film writers and directors, who create characters and situations for those characters to endure, and sit back and watch with detachment and amusement, like the guys in the control room. Here the characters end up getting revenge against their puppeteers, but the big message is that maybe horror movie characters are the sacrifices we make in order to quell larger monsters. We get off on watching characters die in horror films as a way of placating the larger demons dwelling within, that could come out and wreak real havoc in the real world. That is the real tribute to horror films this movie makes—not in all of the careful references, but by casting the films themselves as a release valve that keeps society’s violent impulses confined to fiction, where they belong.