JR: At the risk of agreeing with Jason yet again, let me add that the deeper problem the horror genre now faces is being too reverential to the classics. Too often, I see new movies that are expressly conceived for (and targeted to) the midnight Austin crowd. They have a shocking gore moment or two, several knowing asides and a smidgen of nudity to earn a (respected) R rating. These movies are, by and large, forgettable.
I often wonder if today's critics would be able to recognize a new "Alien" or "Rosemary's Baby," something truly groundbreaking (and by the way, those movies got mixed reviews). The good news is that audiences are often able to recognize something valid *before* critics do -- especially in the case of horror, which works on a visceral level. (It should also be noted that those two movies were studio-made, not indies; it's far from a given that the best entries will come from the fringe.)
JZ: And you see this same issue -- being too reverential to the classics -- in remakes which far too often are tentative, seemingly nervous about angering the fanbase. I saw an interview with the director of the "Straw Dogs" remake where he tried to reassure the fans that the new movie would be just as hardcore and shocking as the original. And I wondered: Is that possible considering change of context? And if so, is it desirable? But I also think that the culture more generally is increasingly fragmented and that's reflected in the genre, which seems to cater more to niche tastes. That can be a good and a bad thing.
JR: My mind just exploded: "Cabin," in a weird way, is itself a remake -- not of a specific film, but of the videogeek's revenge, in which every scenario is already whiteboarded, literally. (I did like the film when I watched it, but the more I discuss it, the more it's unraveling for me.)
"'Cabin in the Woods' does celebrate the ritual of horror, and suggests there’s something ancient and primal about it." --JZ
Jason's point about the general fragmentation of culture contributing to a rash of niche-oriented horror films is almost certainly accurate in regards to low-budget horror films. But even those niches are familiar. Do we want to keep horror formula locked in a box (or a cabin), forced to imitate the same ideas indefinitely? That's one of the issues that irked me about "Cabin in the Woods," even though I enjoyed it a lot -- it celebrates formula rather than innovation, even though it is itself rather uniquely formulated. And the celebration of formula, at least to me, implies a preference for repetition, which is not so good. Setting aside the point Josh made about the self-referential qualities of "Cabin," is there a separate issue about imitation that we should address here? Or do we want horror films to satisfy our expectations rather than create new ones?
JZ: Interesting. How much of the pleasure of horror comes from ritual and repetition is a fascinating question. I think only a true old-school snob could deny that it’s part of the reason the genre is popular. You can’t argue with the startling success of remakes, sequels, not to mention that doomed coed who insists on going inside that scary house yet again. And I agree that "Cabin in the Woods" does celebrate the ritual of horror, and suggests there’s something ancient and primal about it. This also relates to a larger issue in the movie about free will. There’s that conversation where the middle manager insist that while the scenes they orchestrate are highly manipulated, the characters ultimately make the crucial choices. And in that moment, I think you see the refinement in the movie’s point of view: Horror, it argues, is rooted in repetition, but within its constraints, there is the possibility of innovation, spontaneity, flashes of freshness.
But does this movie accomplish that? I think we agree it’s not a game-changing work like "Alien" or "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but if one was to make an argument for its innovation, I think it would rest in the satirical world of the middle managers. They are often genuinely funny. The tone is unexpected. For much of the movie, their language is effectively oblique enough to keep up the suspense, although some critics think the trick was obvious from the beginning. Still, in the context of horror movies about teenagers in the woods, we don’t see these characters often. And the fact that the puppet-masters are not some evil mastermind like in "Saw," but rather pathetic, white collar types as seemingly bland and disposable as the teenagers themselves is, I think, an interesting new idea. So to answer your question more directly, I hope horror satisfies expectations but also surprises. And this film did that for me, but only in small way.