2012, Drew Goddard -- in theatre
(Spoiler heavy discussion below... if you haven't seen the Cabin in the Woods, and still wish to, it's best to avoid any exposure to trailers or reviews beforehand)
I didn't like this movie so much as I was impressed by it, especially in hindsight. It seems every few years there's an absolutely terrific horror production that just bends the genre on its ear, exploiting all of its warped conventions for both laughs and scares. Scream wasn't the first to do it, just the most notable for blowing the meta-horror into the mainstream. Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is another great meta-horror that approaches the genre from an exceptionally nerdy, deconstructionist angle, as if it were more thesis on the nature of slasher movies.
What Scream did was place its characters in a world where slasher films exist, where all the cliches are known by the characters who realize that they're in a scenario much like the movies. In Behind the Mask, the much more difficult conceit is the documentary angle following a slasher killer, Leslie Vernon, who's just doing his job murdering teenager by the conventions of, well, the trade as it has been plied before him.
What Cabin in the Woods does that neither of these, or any other meta-horror film has done in the past is incorporate the meta as an actual functioning element of the story. What's so impressive about the film is that the cliches of just about every horror sub-genre are plausible and possible within the context of the story. The horrific elements are manufactured in a sense, with the a team working deep below the titular cabin setting establishing the entire scenario, and stacking the deck to make sure it happens as planned.
It's actually the crew we're introduced to first, even before we meet the college kids who are going to be the unwitting subjects of this grand guignol. Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon cleverly jump back and forth between the puppeteers and the potential victims, which explains a lot right away and still not enough, as the puzzle is continuously pieced together with each additional scene.
The fact that we're aware that strings are being pulled, that the college kids' lives are in a somewhat controlled scenario, at first, early on lowers the tension into a comfort of cleverness. But as things escalate, and the scheme starts unfolding into something far more nefarious, the actual meat of horror, and not just its casings show, and the excitement ratchets up.
Once the grand scheme is revealed, once the audience is made aware of what's really going on and that the on-screen deaths aren't, in fact, feeding our bloodlust as an audience (not in the story context at least), Goddard and Whedon have developed a fun little conundrum for the audience to process, and blown up the endless potential for other stories to unfold out of this one. The conceit may not be perfectly crafted, but the "big bad" of the film is a far more etherial one than just a slasher killer, merman, or cenobyte and the glimpse of what is done on a global scale to keep the evil in check sends the mind racing in a thousand delightful directions.
This film underperformed at the box office, but it's one that will live on and on and on in the aftermarket. It's got so many little easter eggs that it was designed for multiple viewings. At the same time, I'm sure approaching the film with fresh eyes and repeat viewings alike provide two distinct experiences with the story and the world that was built within.
This is a film built with love for the genre lovers, a meta-horror that embraces its tropes and exploits them without ever looking down on them.
(now read David's take)