The Cabin in the Woods works as a straight horror/slasher film. It works as a genre sendup, or a comedy or even as semi-serious satire of a popular culture that consumes far too much reality television and has been desensitized to violence. That it works on all these levels and manages to be coherent and, oh by the way, highly entertaining is a triumph. But it's not why I really loved The Cabin in the Woods.
No, it was all the intricate nods and winks to the slasher/horror canon that has arisen and become such a major box office force over the last four decades that worked so brilliantly for me. Now, painstaking detail isn't always what helps a film leap from good to great. There's no magic bullet, of course, and, really, ingredient after ingredient is required to gin up the right cinematic concoction. But here, it feels like the thing that made this the best film I've seen in 2012.
Legendary film critic Roger Ebert called The Cabin in the Woods "like a final exam for fanboys," in his review, and I must plead guilty to the implicit (and good-natured) accusation contained therein. If you're a fan of (or have even just seen) many of the slasher classics referenced in every bit of minutiae throughout the movie, you'll probably quickly find yourself trying to keep a tally of all the ones you can spot. Shortly thereafter, you'll have to give up because the human brain simply doesn't work that fast.
Anyway, the non-fanboy intrigue comes from the collision of two familiar premises. The first, seen most notably in The Truman Show and The Hunger Games, is a team of puppetmasters controlling an environment in which other human beings with varying degrees of awareness are being manipulated. Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) are at the controls here, and they're manipulating a quintet of college students who set out for a weekend at a remote forest cabin that is strongly reminiscent of The Evil Dead and Friday the 13th.
Fans of Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, particularly, will feel right at home with the youngsters; you have the jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the brain Holden (Jesse Williams), the whore Jules (Anna Hutchinson), the burnout Marty (Fran Kranz) and, of course, the chaste virgin Dana (Kristen Connolly).
The twist is that those seven principal characters are shoehorned awkwardly into their roles, and intentionally so. Sitterson and Hadley are neither cynical nor vindictive; rather, they are painted as blue-collar company men with a job to do. They never feel like real villains (and indeed they aren't) even as they funnel the quintet at the cabin toward a series of gory and brutal deaths. Curt reveals himself as an intellectual within his first few minutes on screen. Jules is pre-med and in a committed relationship with Curt. She's not even a real blonde, either! Dana, meanwhile, is hardly a virgin, and, in fact, is fresh out of a forbidden relationship with one of her professors. The archetypes are laid out explicit;y precisely because they are being exposed as lazy and formulaic.
I don't want to get too bogged down in the sheer meta-ness of it all, but know that it's there if you have the context of scores of other slasher flicks and are even a little bit aware of the film's more secondary details. Yes, The Cabin in the Woods sent me diving into my DVD collection courtesy of a terrific Hellraiser reference, but the point is that it's still an incredibly effective film even if it doesn't inspire the same behavior in you.
My girlfriend, who is not a horror fan by any stretch of the imagination, went to the movie with me. She laughed. She was taken in by the underlying mystery. And the horror elements created such tension that she watched most of the climax from between her fingers. She caught probably a fraction of the references that I did, but that didn't matter when we walked out of the theater.
Look, The Cabin in the Woods falls well short of genius because a.) that adjective is the most overused in the Western hemisphere and b.) it's ostensibly not. Writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, the latter of whom also directed the film, never fully explained, to me at least, why the college students have to "choose" their fate, and they didn't get a remotely memorable performance from any of the five college students (Whitford and Jenkins, on the other hand, were terrific). The thing is, your heart will be pounding and your mind will be racing so quickly when it ends that you probably won't take a second to worry about those small blemishes.