The Cabin in the Woods‘ initial plot is as stereotypical as they come. Five easygoing college-age friends, none too hard on the eyes, drive to a secluded cabin to spend the weekend there. They more or less accidentally attract the attention of some evil monsters which proceed to pick the friends off one by one. If that’s all the film delivered, it would not be worth watching, or writing about. With a minor exception, the deaths aren’t even particularly clever or imaginative, the usual distinguishing mark for latter-day slasher films.
But that isn’t all the film has up its sleeve. The five main characters aren’t just stereotypes — by the second act they’re archetypes: the slut, the jock, the nerd, the clown, and the innocent. Cabin utilises the clichés inherent in the genre to deconstruct the same. The plot forces the characters to fit their predetermined pattern and, often, to act in unrealistic and stupid ways, but it does so for a reason, and the script explicitly provides that reason.
In addition to the main plot, from the very first scene (from the opening credits, arguably) there is a second layer to the proceedings: a shadowy cabal of glib people who are watching our heroes and, sometimes, manipulating them, nudging them so they better match our preconceived notions of what they’re supposed to do. Without revealing exactly who they are and whom they serve (it’s a nice twist that I knew beforehand but don’t want to spoil for others), metaphorically they stand in for filmmakers who perpetuate the dumbest and grossest genre conventions, and ultimately for the audience that enables them. Now that’s a horror movie message I can get behind!
The film isn’t a parody and it’s not a comedy, though it does have moments of morbid humour that work very well (as is to be expected from co-writer Joss Whedon). It’s a dark satire that criticises modern mainstream horror for the same reasons I dislike those movies. Yes, there is extreme violence in the film, but it serves a purpose other than sating the audience’s hunger for primitive thrills. That makes it okay and it makes The Cabin in the Woods a horror film you can enjoy for the right reasons.