If there's one thing that pretty much all successful modern horror films have in common it's that they acknowledge their formulaic roots. Sometimes they crank the formula up to 11 (Evil Dead), sometimes they deconstruct the formula (Scream), sometimes they play it straight for a stretch before blowing the formula up and creating something entirely new (Martyrs) but in every case the filmmakers let the audience know that they, too, are in the club. The formula acts as both signifier ("Hey", the filmmakers are saying, "we're fans just like you") and safety net (no matter what crazy shit happens on screen, the audience knows that as long as the formula is being followed the journey will at least be somewhat familiar.)
Cabin In the Woods manages to be both a worthy heir to that tradition, and an entirely new iteration of it. Yes, it follows the usual formula... but it turns out to be not exactly the formula you thought it was. As the film unfolds it makes a compelling case that the horror movie formula itself is just an echo of something older.
Without going into spoilery specifics, that's obviously a very fine line to walk. What's being attempted here is nothing less than movie alchemy. Co-writer Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard use all the familiar elements of a horror film to try and transmute the very meaning of "horror film". Yes, there's an obligatory group of young folk who go to a isolated location, awaken something evil and get taken out one by one. Yes, all the young folk seem to conform to certain stereotypes or even archetypes. Yes, they sometimes do incredibly stupid things to facilitate that awakening and subsequent slaughter. At the same time though, Cabin layers another story on top of the formula that looks at those tropes from a completely different perspective. The movie doesn't just put the formula (and characters) through their paces like show dogs, it addresses the hows and whys of the formula itself from every conceivable angle: plot-centric, thematic, metaphoric, political and probably a half-dozen others that will hit me upon repeat viewings (of which there will probably be at least a few).
In fact the only line Cabin doesn't cross, which films like Scream and its abominable spawn did with gleeful, unspeakable abandon, is openly acknowledge that its "only" a movie. There are plenty of winks and nods to and about the audience, including a couple which thin-skinned viewers might interpret at indictments, but they're all subtextual. There's a geeky stoner character in the Jamie Kennedy mold, sure, but at no point does he turn to anyone and say "Doesn't this place look just like the cabin in Evil Dead?" or, worse, "Hey! Don't do that! Haven't you ever seen a horror movie before?" And Cabin is by far the better for it. That basic respect for the story, the characters and the universe they're in earns the film the right to go way over the top as it hurtles towards the finish, whereas in a movie that poked you every five minutes to say, "Didja know you're watching a movie? Huh, huh? Didja?" that moment of glorious chaos would have felt more like a studio-requested set piece than karmic justice.
Cabin isn't perfect, of course. The only truly perfect movies are unambitious ones, and Cabin's ambition is boundless. The low gore quotient makes it clear the film is aiming for a mass audience, and while that's not inherently a bad idea (although it will put off the hard-cores who won't want to share the movie with the plebes) it does rob at least one kill of its impact, and due to the nature of that layered second story there's very little in the movie that you could really call a good scare. And while Topher... err, Fran Kranz is phenomenal as Marty the stoner geek, and Thor... err, Chris Hemsworth is awesome as Curt the jock, Woman Reading On Beach in The Happening... err, Kristen Connolly doesn't really elevate Dana the spunky girl beyond the Neve Campbell level of adequacy. Also, all things considered, and this will only make sense after you've seen the movie, I would have preferred a tentacle to a hand. Just sayin'.
Those are basically quibbles though. The host of other name actors and Whedon alum all provide a solid foundation of humanity to the mayhem, with veteran character actor Tim De Zarn getting a golden moment in the sun as Mordecai, a role that in another time and place might have gone to a Brion James or Tobin Bell and which will hopefully lift De Zarn up to that kind of career level. Seriously, he's in all of about three minutes of the movie, on and off camera, and almost steals the whole shebang. The dude's amazing. The effects are good, the sly references play across the whole spectrum of horror history, Jodelle Ferland makes her inevitable appearance as the Creepy Girl, and really the whole thing is such as obvious product of fanboy enthusiasm that you can't help but be swept up in it if you have any affection at all for the genre. Even if you've got no use for the Big Ideas scurrying under the surface, Cabin is seventeen flavors of fun. It's a glorious love letter to horror movies, written in eldrich runes of blood on parchment made from human skin that might in the end be nothing more than a Kick Me sign stuck to the monster's back for shits and giggles.
Cabin In the Woods is a tremendous piece of work, a great movie made both for people who require some kind of excuse or justification for liking a horror film, and for those who wear their love of the genre like a gruesome badge of honor. Full props to Messrs. Whedon and Goddard for pulling off what in lesser tentac... err, hands might have been a train wreck or at best a failed experiment. Instead, it's an instant classic.