Yes, it’s clever enough in that particular Joss Whedon, smart-assed kind of way that’s reserved only for the coolest of the cool. It also keeps assuring you of this fact in a pushy fashion that’s far from appealing. It’s not bad by any means—apart from being way too pleased with itself—but it’s not the last word in horror. It hasn’t reinvented the genre. It hasn’t made all other horror movies irrelevant. It probably hasn’t even put an end to the inbred cannibal hillbilly/zombie sub-genre. I can’t suppress a certain amusement over the idea that a movie that cannibalizes every horror-picture trope ever to come down the pike is being fawned over as “original.” It’s essentially a kind of shake-n-bake affair with a sense of humor that has far too much in common with Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Was I ever scared? No, not even briefly. Even in the shock-effect realm, The Cabin in the Woods is pretty tepid. Its biggest jolt comes from the sudden giant appearance of its title with a blast of music—something we saw last year in the vastly superior Insidious. Was I constantly surprised by its much-touted twists and turns? No, and I’m pretty surprised that anyone who saw the trailer could have been. The trailer gives away the movie’s central “clever” premise. And if you haven’t figured out the supposedly big twist at the end by the time the first deliberately meat-on-the-hoof 20-something hands in her dinner pail, then you: a) haven’t been paying attention to the control room blather; and b) haven’t seen nearly as many horror pictures as you think you have. Probably the best thing in the whole movie is the idea that if you deviate from the basic requirements of the genre, there’ll be hell to pay. I’m saying no more than that about the plot’s mechanics, for the benefit of anyone wanting to approach it cold.
On the other hand, yes, I was entertained enough by watching the gears mesh and spotting the various film references (most of which are sufficiently generic that it’s hard not to find some cross-reference). I have no real qualms with most of the film’s control-room scene, and did enjoy the workers therein getting a laugh at the expense of their resident doomsayer in the woods. I have no complaints about any of the performances, though I can’t say I was bowled over by any of them. The special effects were generally between fine and adequate. The film’s big scene near the end (believe me, you’ll know it when you get there) has an amusingly gonzo quality, though I kept thinking I was watching a splattery variant on the hall of doors business in Yellow Submarine.
In the end, a lot of your enjoyment will depend on whether or not you think that Joss Whedon’s particular brand of humor is all that funny. If you’re a Whedonite, this will almost certainly appeal to you. The other significant factor is whether you’ve maxed out on post-modern snark. Really, once you subtract the whole postmodern deconstruction attitude (which is almost counterproductive in terms of subversiveness in the horror genre), this isn’t all that different from any number of horror comedies—except it’s not as good as at least half a dozen I can think of offhand. I suspect I’m just a little put off by the feeling that, unlike most movies that poke fun at the genre, I’m not convinced that The Cabin in the Woods was made either by or for people who love horror pictures. Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use and some sexuality/nudity.