In the long-running battle between art and commerce, very little so exemplifies art's inability to compete with commerce like a horror film franchise. Sure, the movies that kick those franchises off can be fresh and fascinating, even unlike much of anything the audience has ever seen before, but once the profit-generating and marketing machines get their claws into them, what was once original becomes paint-by-numbers, a stone from which every single drop of blood gets wrung before it's finally tossed aside. Sure, a bright and shining light can sometimes rear its head unexpectedly (Season of the Witch, New Nightmare, Friday the 13th: Part IV), but those are aberrations, and not anywhere close to reflections of the whole. A horror movie franchise is about as crassly commercial as it gets (and those attempted franchises that don't get beyond a single film? Yeesh), and it's well past time someone made a movie like The Cabin in the Woods in response to it.
The thing about The Cabin in the Woods is that it takes these rote conventions of death-dealing to which the audience has become mostly desensitized and makes them matter. All of the giant monsters, girl ghosts, murdering psychopaths, and other death-dealing creatures don't exist because of the all-consuming quest for money, but because they're mythological, archetypal even, and tap into a vein of terror in our psyche as potent as ever. They serve a very real purpose; they're here to facilitate the continuance of life as we know it.
See, the movie's conceit is this: the ancient, enormous, malevolent creatures that walked the earth long before humanity still live, but they're slumbering. In order to keep them in demonic hibernation, sacrifices have to be made. Human sacrifices. A secret, global network has grown to keep these sacrificial offerings running smoothly, and the titular Cabin is one of these sites. The white-collar technicians and researchers sealed in a bunker far below have total control over the environment, maximizing their chances that the events taking place above their heads will play out exactly as they're supposed to.
Despite the high-tech nature of the facility, and the ease with which the technicians (though, let's face it, they're really thinly-veiled allegories for the filmmakers themselves) manipulate the environment, ancient rules still guide the proceedings with heavy hands. The kids still have to fall into broadly defined categories: the fool, the athlete, the virgin, the whore, and the scholar. They have to follow a pre-set series of actions to bring the vengeance of the evil forces down upon them, and when they do die, they have to meet their ends in a specific order. The established conventions that films like Scream were so content to point out and reference get mythologized in Cabin in the Woods; the sexualized kids don't get torn apart by a supernatural killer because conventional morality demands it, but because the gods do, and if they don't get what they want, the whole world's going to come to an end.
Cabin in the Woods reminded me of nothing so much as the last season of Angel, and specifically the final few episodes of the series. It, too, married the modern corporate world with a more ancient, primal, mythological one. The balance between the two worlds was always precarious, and it took very little work to strip away the barely civilized veneer that coated everything before revealing the savagery lurking beneath (which is the theme at the core of at least 50% of all horror films anyway). The important difference, of course, is that the mythical, horrible creatures that loom over Cabin in the Woods, were a part of everyday life in Angel. The heroes fought not just to preserve the status quo, but to make the world into a better one, and maybe that's because the dangers weren't just intellectual, but present. The horrors are locked away in the bunker, but Angel and his friends worked side-by-side with flesh-eating demons and soulless vampires. No one really succeeds in saving the world, in either the movie or the film, but the Angel cast was a darn sight more likable and sympathetic.
In The Cabin in the Woods, the basest urges of humans and corporate-humans are given substantive value, maybe the most substantive of all. Death for some equates to life for the rest of us; horror, in this world, has meaning. Insofar as modern horror goes, Scream was barely an appetizer compared to Drew and Joss' masterpiece. Here's to hoping we don't see Cabin in the Woods: Japan/Norway/Mexico/Outer Freaking Space any time soon.
Though I'd watch any of those, probably dozens of times. See? The movie's right!