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Scream was the first word in meta-horror, but Cabin in the Woods could be the last. A gloriously gimmicky dead-end of a popcorn flick, it reaches into the conventions that Wes Craven turned upside down with that franchise and turns them inside out — in a world where torture porn is burnt out, the landscape is littered with the corpses of stupid reboots, your aunt is looking forward to a zombie apocalypse on Facebook, and omg, Gale Weathers actually divorced Deputy Dewey (!), Joss Whedon and longtime writing partner Drew Goddard have killed off the genre and reanimated its brain stem all over again. If Scream reduced the conventions of ’70s and ’80s horror to a old-school video game, where one survives by following the rules, Cabin is a MMORPG where how you play is important. They’ve put the gameplay back in our hands.

The beginning is necessarily deceptive, introducing your standard slasher characters: Nice Guy, Nice Girl, Jock, Slut, Weird Kid.  College-aged all, and heading to the titular cabin to, um, get high and fuck in a different place, one assumes, although the Weird Kid, who in this iteration is a Stoner, also expresses his desire to “get off the grid.” Operating under the assumption that nothing which happens in the first 20 minutes of a movie is a spoiler, you should know that these poor bastards are heading even further into the grid, a simulated experience manipulated by government flacks in a secret facility. This is 2012, after all. How do you make everyone uncomfortable in a world where we’re all ironically worshiping Cthulhu? Like this:

Good horror is always about tapping into the stuff we never talk about in public, the real deep fight-or-flight stuff, the abominations that make your mind hurt and cause your own brain stem to go all primal, a screeching monkey clambering up the walls in protest. Goddard, who wrote for Lost, knows how to do the conspiracy thing, and as this story unfolds, the web of deceit becomes infinitely more terrifying — that is, recognizable — than any eyeless freaks or pallid horrors. This flick succeeds by assuming that civilization’s (d)evolved enough that we can create our own mythologies, thank you. In this world, the boogeyman wears a clip-on badge. The best joke in Cabin — which is billed as a “horror comedy,” but is actually less ironically jocular than Scream — is how the Stoner’s natural paranoia continually works in his favor.

Unfortunately,  Drew, who’s never been behind the camera, also brought his own flaws to this production, which stops it from being the instant classic it might have been. He doesn’t have Joss’ expert ability to make the hot seem hip: even before his characters start losing their dimension and start acting like archetypes — again, because of the techies behind the scenes — their own personal brand of faux hipness gets pretty annoying; you’re kind of happy they’re getting picked off. (Ditto for the white-collar workers, although karma already sees them coming.) The ending, too, is almost as big of a fudge as the last episode of Lost; no fair giving it away, but it involves a special cameo (again like Scream!) and a reveal that places the whole construct back in the realms of demons and demigods. It’s a decision that robs the film of a good bit of its punch, since Cabin in the Woods’ neatest trick is in making us lab rats and not just pre-packaged zombie lunches. Overall, however, Whedon and Goddard’s self-described “loving hate letter” to horror is a badly-needed jolt that also opens up a number of intriguing possibilities going forward. Just don’t expect a sequel.