Warning: I'm keeping it vague, but there are things here that could be considered spoilers.
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods has a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of posting. That amount of praise is virtually unprecedented for a horror movie. You could have guessed from the participation of Whedon (the mastermind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or you already know from the hype cloud that Cabin has been floating on since making its debut at South By Southwest in March to a rapturous audience response: Cabin is no standard horror movie. It's a self-conscious commentary on the horror genre and its tropes along the lines of Scream but with a more ambitious message than, "These things exist."
To Cabin's credit, it comes off as sharp about the superficial operations of its genre – I suspected Scream 4 (or Scre4m if you want to be dumb about it) annihilated such self-reflexive discourse with its opening scene, which was so meta, it was meta about being meta. (There's a movie within the movie in which a character bitches about how meta horror has become.) Cabin wants to assure us that there's still plenty of self-aware fun to be had.
The first two thirds of the film are a blast. Five teenagers retreat to the titular cabin for a weekend stay. The idea is specifically to get off the grid, so the horror movie cell phone dilemma needs no solving: the characters solve it for the movie. It's a great example of how conventions are ripped open and reassembled inside out in Cabin. The weed that Marty (Fran Kranz) smokes would be a hindrance in another film; here it turns out to be an asset in multiple, hilarious ways. Whedon's script is top-notch – it manages to be funny, current and juvenile without trying too hard.
Meanwhile, we watch as our group of archetypes (the jock played by the edible Chris Hemsworth, the ambiguously ethnic guy played by Jesse Williams, the virgin played by Kristen Connolly, the slut played by Anna Hutchison, the aforementioned stoner) is guided to their peril by a control room full of people (including characters played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford), who are not unlike the gamemakers of The Hunger Games. This remote group is responsible for setting the tone (pheromone mists are sprayed and moonlight is turned up to facilitate romance) and generally making certain death a sure thing. When a new guy takes exception to participating in murder, his coworker tells him, "You get used to it." "Should you?" wonders the dissenter.
The symbolism gets muddled the more The Cabin in the Woods attempts to explain itself. These men in the control room who hang on the dwindling group's every move seem to represent the modern-day horror movie audience in all of its states of arousal (from aghast to desensitized). We come to find that these control-room producers are working in the interest of preserving natural order, that the deaths they facilitate onscreen (and by extension, the ones that we the people have facilitated by purchasing a ticket) are a modern form of sacrifice to keep the "ancient ones" from rising. Those tropes we know so well are actually rituals.
The group's fate gets the Evil Dead treatment with a twist of Friday the 13th. Most of the carnage is telegraphed by the control room in advance of it happening, cutting any potential tension into ribbons. As horror comedies go, this one falls most consistency into the latter category. And then, in the underwhelming third act, the two remaining survivors realize that they're being watched and they've been set up to die. Their self-consciousness and investment in destroying conventions such as the "final girl," it turns out, runs the risk of changing the world, blowing shit up. That a self-conscious, convention-destroying horror movie is suggesting this very point is self-congratulatory: Look at us, say Whedon and Goddard, blowing up your shit.
That was their goal, too. "We've had a growing disconnect between watching people getting murdered and ‘horror,' which is not actually about murder," Whedon told Entertainment Weekly. "It can contain murder, but it's not limited to it. We wanted to go back to old-school thrilling scares." Cabin was devised as a response to the now-dismembered torture porn subgenre. (Had it not been tied up in the chaos of MGM's bankruptcy and come out closer to its 2009 shooting date, it would have been more pointed. In 2012, it serves as an alternative to the underwhelming current state of horror, which is focused on ghosts and found footage.)
The resolution is not just underwhelming - it's hypocritical. The idea that primitive bloodlust draws audiences to horror films ("Remember when you could just throw a girl into a volcano?" asks a producer) is disingenuous. There is at least a segment of the horror audience that doesn't seek catharsis or some kind of primordial thrill when watching depictions of death, but that sees them for what they are: depictions. For some of us, the real fun of horror movies comes from divorcing yourself from character empathy (here's a tip, as suggested by the trailer to The Last House on the Left: "To avoid fainting, keep repeating: "It's only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…") and, as a result, viewing this stuff as a collection of ways a group of movie makers are attempting to make you squirm, scream and vomit. The question isn't, "How will they scare me?" but, "What will they think of next to try?" One's relationship with the macabre doesn't have to be reflexive, and smart-talking characters aren't the only ones who are capable of consciousness.
As trope-excavators who are dealing with cinema as cinema, Whedon and Goddard get this. But Cabin ultimately betrays them in exposing that when watching a movie as a movie, sometimes the commentary just gets in the way.