I just saw this Friday night. As a result of being so late to the party, I've only been able to read the first 8 pages of the thread so far, so forgive me if any of the points I make are redundant. (Though I can't say I'm at all surprised a movie like this—i.e., a funny, inventive, self-aware genre movie—has struck a chord around these parts, of course.)
I enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods a good deal, though I have to admit it didn't achieve the kind of giddy enthusiasm in me that it seems to have achieved in a lot of others. To be fair, I'm not much of a horror guy. I've seen a smattering of the higher-pedigree classics (e.g., Psycho, Peeping Tom, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining) and a few more recent efforts (The Strangers, Paranormal Activity, The House of the Devil), but it's never been a genre I've made much of an effort to explore. Even so, I'm familiar enough with a lot of the clichés it was sending up to appreciate those aspects of the movie—in large part thanks to Joshua's old "Horror 101" series from a couple years ago, which it immediately reminded me of (still looking forward to Baboon Holocaust!). In addition to getting most of the nods to genre conventions, it was well written and inventive enough, with engaging characters both above and below ground, to keep me engaged throughout, despite my relative lack of interest in horror. Both Whedon and Goddard deserve a lot of credit for crafting a movie that works simultaneously as an interesting examination of narrative themes and expectations, and as an engaging story in its own right. (Even more so, I'd say, than the similarly intentioned Funny Games, which digs a bit deeper in its examination but isn't nearly as engaging as a story.)
One aspect I found particularly interesting was the idea of the victims' freedom, or lack thereof. (Again, I apologize in advance if these points have already been discussed ad nauseam.) The "puppeteers" go to such lengths to make sure everything goes according to plan, to the point of drastically changing the victims' personalities: the learned Curt becomes a horny jock, the star football player Holden dons glasses and becomes shy and sensitive, Jules becomes a "celebutard," and the professor-banging Dana is cast as "the virgin." And yet the sacrifice is predicated on free will, on the victims not only choosing their demise but also deserving it, as punishment. The idea of a sacrificial victim going to his fate willingly is rooted in Christian theology, but what I was first reminded of when Whitford and Jenkins were discussing free will with the guard was The Wicker Man*. At the end, the people of Summerisle tell Sergeant Howie that their sacrifice requires a victim who goes to his fate of his own free will (meaning that he came to Summerisle, refused opportunities to leave, and even wound up at the foot of the wicker man's hill freely, despite the islanders' manipulations of him). That movie doesn't have the element of punishment that The Cabin in the Woods and modern slashers in general have, where the drug-doing, sex-having teens die for their transgressions while the virgin's purity earns her the right to survive. But there seems to be an element to the willing sacrifice not only of justice, but of entertainment, which explains why it's found in both slashers and something like The Wicker Man. There just isn't the same kind of tension for the audience if the victim's fate (whether "deserved" or not) is 100% inevitable. Like us, the Ancient Gods would get bored of their sacrifice if the victims had absolutely no chance of avoidance or escape. As Trav McGee pointed out, that would be tragedy, not horror.
* I'm speaking, of course, of the only version, made in 1973. People keep talking about some remake, but I know—know—Nic Cage and Neil LaBute both took a sabbatical that year and didn't make any movie together.
Edited by Curiosity Cosby - 5/6/12 at 2:33pm