It seems like irony is becoming the new sincerity, or at least sincerity can't be taken without the comforting reminder that the story is in fact a commentary on other stories. In other words, don't worry about what's going on behind the scenes because you're behind the scenes too. Which is a little depressing, a sign perhaps of the diminishing imaginations of even intelligent movie goers, but that doesn't mean 2012's The Cabin in the Woods is a bad film. In fact, it's pretty good, though it almost seems like it succeeds in spite of itself.
I've been reading William Blake all day and this quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, about Milton's Paradise Lost, seems oddly appropriate; "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."
The Cabin in the Woods was co-written and produced by Joss Whedon, who is quoted in Wikipedia as talking about how the movie was intended as a "loving hate letter" to horror movies and meant to be critical of "the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances." On the subject of torture porn, of films supposedly belonging to the genre I've only seen the first two Hostel movies and the first Saw film, but I suspect that's a great deal more than most people who routinely criticise it. At any rate, The Cabin in the Woods doesn't seem to contain any specific reference to those films, unless it is in the existence of an institution which manipulates attractive young people into meeting their deaths by brutal torture for the viewing pleasure of a sadistic audience. Which as a concept, hardly in itself confronts what is supposedly distinct about torture porn, since such a concept is at least as old as Edgar Allan Poe.
The plot of The Cabin in the Woods involves a group of young people who, by reason of drugs and chemicals covertly introduced to their systems in shampoo and presumably beverages and invisible gases, are turned into the stock characters of a horror film--Chris Hemsworth plays a leader jock, Anna Hutchinson plays his girlfriend whose blonde hair dye turns her into the sexually promiscuous one who must be punished according to the implicit rules of a horror film, Kristen Connolly plays Dana, the "virgin" who it is implied is not a virgin but close enough. Jesse Williams plays a banal good guy to fill out the group, and Fran Kranz gets the best role as "the fool" whose pot habit has made him immune to the lobotomising drugs. As a consequence, he's the only character among the group who gets any real development, as we're left to wonder what the others were like before treatment, most crucially Dana. She has closest to the lead role and her lack of personality unmoors the film somewhat, since it fails to develop much actual horror to compensate.
The film works best when it seems like an episode of Angel, as it becomes a sincere fantasy tale using the trappings of an irony commentary. There's a wonderful sequence near the end where the heroes let loose a number of movie monsters, and Whedon and director Drew Goddard, to perhaps their shame, indulge in some satisfying violent mayhem.
The film's insights aren't always especially new--like the hierarchy of kills, which are relatively well known to anyone with a passing familiarity with tropes. An early scene where Whedon and Goddard seek to show the drugged kids behaving in a typically stupid way contrasted with Fran Kranz comparatively realistic state falls flat because the actions of the supposedly stupid kids are only stupid if they're aware of the existence of zombies, and Kranz's telling them it's a bad idea to investigate the items in the cellar of the old cabin are only smart if he also has foreknowledge. In fact, in real life, the stupidity would be on precisely the other foot. Why wouldn't one want to explore the strange relics in an old cabin?
One is reminded that Angel is a superior work since in that format the makers of this film were able to craft characters over a period of time that were more interesting to pit against strange violence than the mostly rather dull types here. The irony, I guess, is that in attempting to create an ironic portrait of stock types to show their uselessness in good story telling, Whedon and Goddard have here given us insubstantial blank canvases.