[WARNING: here be spoilers.]
With 2012's "The Cabin in the Woods," there's much to love, some things to hate, and plenty to think about. "Cabin" is produced by Joss Whedon, known for masterminding culturally iconic TV fare like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dollhouse," and "Firefly," as well as movies like "The Avengers" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Whedon co-wrote the screenplay for "Cabin" with Drew Goddard, who also helmed the film in his directorial debut.
The story is ostensibly about five college kids who drive out to a remote cabin in the woods (ta-dah!); the kids are level-headed Dana (Kristen Connolly), studly Curt (Aussie Chris Hemsworth sporting his George Kirk-style American accent), sultry Jules (Anna Hutchison), unwontedly perceptive stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), and slightly nerdy Holden (Jesse Williams). What the kids don't know is that the cabin in question lies within a secret compound. An entire staff consisting of hundreds of employees (including the hilariously bureaucratic and world-weary Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as Hadley and Sitterson) can monitor even the most minor of events in and around the cabin, so the kids have no idea that they're actually stepping into a morbid version of "The Truman Show."
Things get even more meta when we discover that the facility is there for a reason—a reason that becomes clearer as the kids die off one by one: every year, a group of youths must be lured to certain sites all around the world to be sacrificed to The Ancient Ones: evil gods who dwell beneath the earth. If the gods aren't adequately propitiated, they will rise and destroy all life in a holocaust of agony. These facilities contain enormous holding areas in which are kept various minor evils (minor relative to The Ancient Ones) like werewolves, basilisks, angry spirits, the twins from "The Shining," zombies, and so on, in a bonanza of popular horror-movie references (see more about those references here). The cabin is rigged to manipulate the kids into its cellar, and once there, the unknowing victims handle various musty items, thereby inadvertently triggering the release of a set of monsters corresponding to a given item. In this group's case, it's a diary with some lines of Latin text that awaken an undead family of pain-worshippers. Once that happens, it's all downhill from there.
If you've already guessed that we'll come down to a "final girl," you're half right. The movie toys with your expectations, which are based on what you already know about horror movies. If you've guessed that some of the survivors will find their way beyond the cabin and into the monster-filled facility itself, you get a prize. The big question is whether the kids' discovery of the facility will lead to a salubrious destruction of the system or to the ruin of the earth.
Horror movies that go meta are nothing new. 1996's "Scream" is a good example of self-aware horror-comedy (and the moment a horror movie goes the self-aware route, it's inevitably a horror-comedy). Whedon himself has referred to "Cabin" as "a loving hate letter" to horror films, incorporating and subverting genre elements in a bid both to criticize horror movies and to elevate them. Perhaps because Whedon is mocking the typical horror template, I found most of the jump scares to be predictable (I admit I was fooled by the wall-mounted wolf's head, which I had fully expected to eat Jules's face off while she was making out with it). In terms of self-conscious trope-borrowing, I couldn't help but think that a good proportion of the visuals seemed derivative of work done by Sam Raimi (whose work is slyly and openly referred to multiple times in "Cabin") and the big-ass, violently thrashing creatures normally associated with Peter Jackson. So a major aesthetic question for me is: if this movie is being deliberately unoriginal, to what extent is that a strike against it?
Overall, I think I enjoyed the meta aspect of "The Cabin in the Woods." Whedon is also known for infusing his scripts with energy and humor, and these were in great supply all through the film. Some of the humor was painfully corny ("I'm still on speakerphone, aren't I?"), but a lot of it was genuinely witty. As the kids started dying off, I wasn't sure, at first, that they were really dying. I wondered whether this wasn't a take-off of the "Hunger Games" scenario, but with supposedly murdered college kids being whisked off to some safe spot after appearing to have been dispatched. Alas, no: the kids really are dying, and although I'm not quite sure of the mechanics, their blood is somehow being drained and poured as an offering to The Ancient Ones during scenes that look almost exactly like scenes in the "Blade" movies.
Because the movie goes meta, it's hard to point at flaws and declare that they're really flaws: for all I know, the filmmakers made those "mistakes" deliberately. That said, I'll point out two things I disliked. First, there's the "system purge" scene, in which two of our protags make it into the compound and find themselves inside what must be The Most Important Room in the Complex... and it's completely unguarded. That struck me as mightily implausible, but again, it could be that Whedon and Goddard deliberately wove such stupidity into the plot. If they did, though, then the moment is more a critique of similar scenes in action movies than it is a critique of anything that normally happens in horror films.* My other problem was with the glimpse of The Ancient One that we got at the end. Considering how the movie built the deities up as Lovecraftian horrors, I was thoroughly disappointed when the appendage that erupted out of the ground proved to be just a human-looking arm and not a tentacle. (Or would that have strayed too far into Guillermo del Toro territory? Del Toro cornered the market on tentacles with his Hellboy movies.)
Overall, then, I found "The Cabin in the Woods" to be entertaining, even though there were plot holes, visual disappointments, and predictable jump scares that, because predictable, weren't scary. I laughed when I was supposed to laugh, and I caught the meta where I think I was supposed to catch the meta. Although there were aspects of the film that I didn't like, those negatives were outweighed by the film's positives. Because going meta isn't particularly original in the horror genre anymore, I can't give "Cabin" many points for creativity on that score, but the plotting and dialogue did much to make up for that lack.
One final thing: the movie felt like a bloated take on one of Stephen King's more memorable short stories: "Rainy Season." In King's story, a young couple must be sacrificed every seven years to the dark and evil powers that keep a small Maine town prosperous. For the ritual to work, the couple must be warned that they should leave, then they must choose to remain in town. (The issue of choice comes up frequently in "Cabin" as well.) That night, a rain of evil, fanged frogs will inundate the town, eating their way into the couple's lodging. The morning sun then melts the frogs away, leaving nothing. No one dares question the ritual; the dark powers are always listening. Yeah... "Cabin" is a lot like that. A lot like that.
*Admittedly, "the strangely unattended lab" is a trope of sci-fi/horror flicks.