Please note that the following post and ensuing comments will spoil Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods. Please read on at your own peril.
It's not a new reaction for me--for any of us genre fans, really--to walk away from a movie with a "that was it" reaction. You know the one, where you scrunch up your face and the inflection on "it" is kind of high-pitched? The reaction is somewhere on the continuum between "disappointed" and "annoyed," the former being a reaction to unmet expectations and the latter to having any expectations at all.
This was (im)precisely my reaction to Cabin in the Woods, the occasionally clever, bloody, but ultimately frustrating big screen collaboration between Cloverfield and Lost scribe Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon (you know who he is). Whedon and Goddard's film wasn't so much an issue of unmet expectations (although I will confess to the cardinal critical sin of going into a movie with expectations), but of unmet potential. I don't mean in those futile terms of fan editing a movie in one's head because the one on screen didn't play out the way you wanted to. I'm saying that Cabin in the Woods' first and subsequent scenes play out as some sort of commentary on the genre which it purports to skewer, ultimately doing nothing so much as pointing out that they exist.
And really, this brought me to a realization: I think that more often than not, I'm put off by fiction about fiction, because it's so damned hard to do well. And this is precisely the reason for this Have Your Say piece; I'm offering it up less as a direct criticism of meta movies and more as an open conversation about movies that observe their own genre with varying degrees of success. In the case of Cabin, the entire movie is a callout to specific tropes in the slasher drama within the context of a global conspiracy to placate bloodthirsty ancient gods.
As a premise, that's the thrilling, heady stuff of grand fiction. As a plot, well, we're mostly left with a bunch of types in a cabin and the question of whether they will live or die. And just because they were manipulated into being types doesn't make them any less types. Same as it ever was with Scream, which I've never been able to really appreciate, mostly owing to the fact that the entire hook of the movie is "see, we know horror movies and how they work." It's why I can appreciate Behind the Mask all the more because it starts from the similar tack of "we know horror movies" and wraps that around a character and his aspirations to be a part of those tropes.
Our own Peter Gutierrez pointed out quite aptly that this is the same criticism leveled against The Artist: or why use the form and formula and pointing out how the form/formula works when you're not going to say anything about either. I also love Peter a little for adding Rankin Bass's Mad Monster Party to the list of "meta" films that work, even if I don't necessarily agree with that particular title [Correction: Peter was calling MMP "postmodern" and not necessarily meta]. But what about Shaun of the Dead, which deftly reconfigured a zombie movie into a romantic comedy or Punch Drunk Love which followed the Adam Sandler man-child character to its natural conclusion? I'd add to that list the toxic/beautiful Love Me If You Dare which takes the early 00's quirk typified by Amelie (which I love, by the way) and, again, shows how twisted and terrible plucky, free-spirited pranksters in that brand of romantic comedy would probably be nightmares to live with (Tautou had her own say on this type of movie in He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not).
Mine isn't, of course, the final word on the movie as our own Jason Gorber loved it when he saw it at SXSW earlier this year. So what say you? In the comments, feel free to tell me why I'm wrong here and feel free to spoil Cabin in the Woods if it's in the service of elaborating on how the movie made or failed to make its case (whatever that case may be). Also, what were some other movies articulate something interesting about the form or genre? We'd love to hear your suggestions (plus, I'd like some recommended viewing to fill out my own sparse recent movie watching).