The Cabin in the Woods is a movie that knows exactly what it's supposed to be, and it's also one that tells you exactly what you're in for in the first five minutes of screen time. If it looks like a horror film with a macabre sense of humor, that's because The Cabin in the Woods couldn't be--and isn't--anything else. It may have more laughs than it does scares, but that doesn't matter, because it's perfectly entertaining fun.
Unsurprisingly, the main action takes place in and around a cabin in the woods. The visitors to this cabin are five college students, each fitting a standard type. There's a jock named Curt (Chris Hemsworth, Thor), and his frisky girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison, the Yellow Cheetah Ranger from Power Rangers: Jungle Fury). There is also Holden (Jesse Williams, Grey's Anatomy), a brainy nice guy, and Marty (Fran Kranz, Dollhouse), a stoner and a clown. Finally, there is the good girl. Dana (soap actress Kristen Connolly) is in a bad place after a relationship with a professor went sour, and Jules wants to set her up with Holden. As any slasher flick aficionado knows, the recipe for sex and fun and dismemberment just needs the remote location to make it all complete.
The one thing that is immediately different than, say, Friday the 13th or Halloween, is that someone is watching thee kids heading off to party. A lot of someones. A whole organization, in fact, though the focus is on the two guys running the show, Sitterson and Hadley, played by the brilliant character actors Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing). Without giving too much away, I'll just say these guys are behind the gruesome violence to come. Their function, to a degree, is live horror made to order.
Don't worry. That's not a spoiler. The above is the information you get as the basic set-up for The Cabin in the Woods, well within the opening scenes. The actual puzzle of the movie is far more complicated. The screenplay was written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer-creator Joss Whedon and one of his regular scribes, Drew Goddard (who also wrote Cloverfield). The Cabin in the Woods is Goddard's directorial debut. The usual touches of Whedon-esque irreverence is on hand here. Though the quintet of college kids do match schlock horror clichés, the writers easily turn those stereotypes on their heads and have fun with them. Some of the humor comes out of how the characters resist falling into that trap, some come from how easily they slide into expectations. All the actors are really good in their roles, though Hemsworth's natural screen presence causes him to stand out even when the part as written isn't all that exceptional. Jenkins and Whitford make a phenomenal duo, and as good as the rest of The Cabin in the Woods is, it noticeably perks up every time the editor cuts back to their control room.
Modern horror cinema regularly uses the platform to critique the genre and the people that consume these films. At least since Michael Powell's Peeping Tom in 1960--and arguably, Hitchcock's Rear Window several years prior--the "audience as complicit voyeurs" has been a common trope. This has only been heightened in the age of reality television and increased surveillance. (The entire hand-held "found footage" genre, like the Paranormal Activity films, relies on the availability of video technology and folks' willingness to use it for their elaborate scenarios.) The Cabin in the Woods touches on these things, as part of the mystery is questioning who this show is for and why. Naturally, one facet of that answer is the show is for us and it's because we get off on seeing the slaughter. As noted, it's not a message that's all that original, but Goddard smartly keeps the commentary to a bare minimum, using it more as a framework to house his clever ideas, while also taking sly pokes at franchises like Saw and Hellraiser. The point seems to be less that we might be bad people for watching such nasty business, and more that, if we accept these visceral thrills as naturally alluring, we might as well have some fun with them. The killing should serve some purpose.
The Cabin in the Woods has a lot to like about it. Horror fans will get a kick out of all the easter eggs buried in the film's final act, while viewers who aren't as versed in the genre will simply enjoy the jump scares, humorous banter, and watching the tangled narrative unravel. It's hard to say how much The Cabin in the Woods will stand up on multiple viewings, once all of its pleasures have been revealed, but the excitement of that first-time discovery is simply too good to pass up.