It is very hard to say anything about The Cabin in the Woods without giving nearly everything away. So:
I will issue another alert near the end of this review. I plead in my defense that the hype preceding the film gave most of this away anyhow.
If you are a horror movie fan and you have been thinking that what we really need is a unified field theory of the surreal estate on which all the creepily ugglies creep, you are about to be satisfied. Such a unified field theory of horror land would need to answer two questions.
Most horror stories are strictly local in focus: this is something happening to these people in this old dark house. Almost all such stories have radical implications for the larger world in which they take place. If Michael Myers shows up in Haddonfield, he can show up in your town. A world with one genuine vampire in it is a world in which vampires and presumably all the other supernatural creepily ugglies are possible. Now: what would a world be like that could contain all the monsters than inhabit all the tales?
Second, subgenres of horror story telling are notoriously fond of certain formulas. The ‘cabin in the woods’ story line is reproduced dozens if not hundreds of times a year. It is nearly always the same story: a group of five or more young men and women go on an outing and get more than they bargained for. The group almost always contains the same set of characters: the good girl and the slut, the jock and the nerd, etc. Suppose for a moment that all of these stories actually happen just so in different places. What would explain the recurring events and patterns?
The Cabin in the Woods answers both questions. The film cuts back and forth between our doomed party animals and a bunch of bureaucrats in some unspecified government installation. We gradually learn that what is about to happen to the former is orchestrated by the latter. Cue the monsters. While horror emerges followed by gore in the cabin, the bureaucrats go about their business in a perfectly businesslike manner. They even have an office pool on which haunted object the victims will activate and thus determine what kind of horror engulfs them.
Better yet, this operation is going on simultaneously in several nations around the globe. While the jock and the whore try to get in some quality time in the woods (is that something horrible staggering toward them?) Japanese school girls in their identical uniforms are running screaming from a ghost with straight black hair, and some Swedes are running from giant trolls.
Why, you might ask, do modern governments need ministries of supernatural atrocities? Isn’t it obvious? They keep the demons below the earth from rising and slaughtering everyone. This is demonology reduced to public administration. Civil servants with degrees and maybe a little accounting have replaced druid priests. Administering the ritual at several locations simultaneously is supposed to make sure that at least one of the efforts succeeds.
It has to be done just so at certain specified times, as is the way with rituals. That explains why the cabin in the woods story happens over and over again and why the same type of people have to die in roughly the same order. One of the bureaucrats casually explains that the virgin’s death is optional, as long as…
We also learn why the horror world has the set of deadly monsters that it does. Below the operations center is a large menagerie of demons, ghosts, zombies, etc. in tidy technologically secure boxes, all ready to be sent into action as the ritual requires.
This is pure brilliance. The entire horror genre is managed, both literally and figuratively, in such a way as to fit in one narrative context. All the recurring story lines and characters fit neatly into the scheme. It surely ranks as one of the greatest homages to the spooky story ever attempted.
SECOND SPOILER ALERT: I AM ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY THE ENDING.
There is a serious reflection on modern bureaucracy hidden behind all the clever plotting and context. The geeks running monster central think they have everything covered. While directing the murder of innocents and determining the fate of man on earth, they discuss ball games and plan barbeques. As long as things seem to be going according to the agenda, they are absurdly confident. Perhaps this is merely their way of dealing with the stress of the job. It does set them up for disaster on the day when a lot of things go wrong at once.
Of course everything does go wrong. At the end, the two survivors (the virgin and the nerd) are faced with a choice. If the nerd does not sacrifice his life, everyone dies. In a moment of existential irresponsibility, they decide that mankind is not worth saving.
Bureaucracies are essential to civilization. When they work well, they provide security and plenty for plenty of folks. However, they do not allow for and even discourage heroism. The more people who are willing to sacrifice others for the sake of the system, the fewer will be people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for anything more important than themselves. The Cabin in the Woods is very funny and not so funny at all. It is the sort of thing you will love if you love that sort of thing. You could do worse for a Halloween night, days away from an election.