Directed by Drew Goddard. Written by Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard. Produced by Joss Whedon. Music by David Julyan. Photographed by Peter Deming. Edited by Lisa Lassek. Production designed by Martin Whist. Starring Kristen Connelly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford.
Cabin in the Woods, the new horror entry from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, is an extremely difficult movie to talk about. Most movies have spoilers. This one has super-spoilers. And spoilers on top of spoilers. And spoilers that hinge upon other spoilers. And that ending? Huge freaking spoiler. Hell, the fact that I just mentioned that this movie has spoilers is kind of a spoiler itself because, really, how many spoilers do you expect in a movie called Cabin in the Woods, and would you want to go to a movie called that if you didn’t know exactly what to expect? Well, if not, you’re going to be disappointed, because this is not that movie. Wait, what? Right.
We’re in dangerous territory here. So let’s do this. In this paragraph I will give my vague thoughts on Cabin in the Woods. And then in the next paragraph I will start discussing secrets. Not super-spoilers, and not the ending spoilers…except maybe in the most considered of terms possible. But yes, secrets. Secrets that perhaps you owe yourself not to know ahead of time. So here: my spoiler-free thoughts on Cabin in the Woods. This is a good film. Playful. Inventive. Great? Perhaps not, but it has a lot of fun toying with greatness. Goddard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Whedon, also directs for the first time here, and on the basis of this film he makes a satisfactory case for directing other horror movies. In fact, you could say… Damn it, almost slipped up. Okay, I will end my guaranteed spoiler-free thoughts on Cabin in the Woods with this simple message: go see Cabin in the Woods.
Alright. Are all the innocents gone? Great. Hi, everybody who’s still here! Let’s talk about Cabin in the Woods.
Cabin in the Woods collects all the standard elements you would find in a movie with that title. There’s a cabin. There are woods. The cabin is in the woods. And there are five characters who seem perfectly at home in a movie with that title. There’s the sweet girl, Dana (Kristen Connolly). There’s the jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth). There’s the slutty girl, Jules (Anna Hutchison). There’s the goofy clown/pothead, Marty (Fran Kranz). And there’s the nice and strapping (but geeky) Holden (Jesse Williams). Curt’s cousin owns the titular cabin. The group piles in a Winnebago for a weekend in the cabin. They meet an ominous gas station attendant. Jules, who is dating Curt, really wants to set up Dana with Holden (either because she’s a good friend or she maybe wants the two couples to have really competitive sex…it can always be read multiple ways). The kids bond on the road. They go to the cabin. They find spooky things. Then spooky things find them. We’ve seen this before.
But not like this, we haven’t. Let’s go over the types again: jock, virgin, slut, clown, nerd. We meet the characters first, before we get the labels. And guess what? They don’t fit. The “jock,” for example, is smart and sweet…only at the cabin does he slowly morph into a braying tough guy. The “slut” is nothing of the kind, until she starts doing a sexy striptease during their drinking party. Drunk? (“I’ve seen her drink,” says the stoner, shaking his head). And the virgin? She has a sordid past and seems hardly frail, and yet even she falls into what feels like a pre-determined role. While making out with Holden on the couch, she murmurs “I’ve never…well, not never…” What’s going on here?
There is another layer. Literally, in fact. This second layer deals with two government functionaries (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford), who preside over a large control room with banks of monitors that peer into the cabin in the woods, which is not a cabin at all…it’s a laboratory. Hidden deep underground, these men study their captives, engineer elaborate plans for them, and even make bets on their behavior—behavior which can be goosed by air vents that distribute chemicals, and drugs that have been supplied to the kids in advance. Why do they go to this elaborate trouble? There are vague rumblings that these kids constitute a ritual sacrifice, and that this laboratory is one of several in the world, all intended to placate something…evil…below. And so the poor kids are put through their paces, their actions manipulated by invisible forces to resemble what would happen in…well, a dumb slasher pic.
In other words, Cabin in the Woods is not just about cabins and woods—it’s about horror movies. And about itself. Like Scream, this is a movie where characters find themselves trapped within conventions. But whereas Scream is about people who fall into those patterns as a default, this one is about human beings who are stripped of their free will by outside pressures. The overlords of the facility first objectify their prey into symbols (the jock, the fool, the—gulp—virgin) and then push buttons and levers to influence their decisions. And for those actions we could read those of Goddard and Whedon, or anyone else who has ever made a horror movie about people behaving idiotically so they can be murdered. Cabin in the Woods, like many stories that dance with metafiction, speculates on what responsibility an artist has to the people within the art he creates. If he is essentially their God, and he wants nothing but to see them all suffer, then what should they make of him, if they were to ever meet him?
And then the movie takes the extra step of attacking viewers. Yes, even us. You. Notice a key scene in a basement where a major threat is—um…discovered (yeah, that’s it). Notice how a crowd in the underground facility vocally disapproves of what that threat turns out to be (routine, a little boring to watch, but gets results). Or how the Jenkins and Whitford shoo that same crowd away and orchestrate a lewd sex scene for the entertainment of the demons below. But…it’s for our entertainment too, because it’s in the movie. Right? One sensational scene occurs at an office celebration where all the partygoers couldn’t be the least bit interested in the graphic carnage happening on the TVs behind them. Because it’s simply a TV show to them. Or a movie to us.
The demons behind (or under) the men pulling the strings are referred to as “The Old Ones,” and references to Lovecraft aside, there is a wicked subtext here that the demons, the audience for all these shenanigans, are us. Horror is a genre that can often surprise and instead typically goes down a worn path, because it gets financial results. Audiences, in other words, demand the familiar in their horror movies, and want things to go in pre-determined ways, come hell or high water. So when the characters here are twisted out of shape, their friends are horrified while the audience is delighted to see comfortable tropes. Formula. Just like what audiences want to see at a Friday night date movie. After all, what are stereotypes if not an attempt to categorize (however unfairly) human behavior? In fact, that is precisely what we may need psychologically after dealing with unspeakable horrors, but how does that help the person being stereotyped?
So then—this is interesting—something happens in the movie that might spoil the whole game, and boy is there not a happy reaction from below to that. I’m tiptoeing right to the edge here. So I’ll be careful. Let me just say that Cabin in the Woods’ third act is joyously, stupendously, bug-eyed, bat-guano insane. Not “weird.” Not “different.” Insane. Not just because of what happens, but whom it happens to, and who is even alive at this point. And then there’s the movie’s last shot, which in a way is its ultimate statement about what it’s doing. This one moment may feel to some like it’s too smug—the movie maliciously plays with form and then has a built-in raspberry for those who don’t like it. But I’d rather see a movie that is protectively elitist that one that aims for nothing and achieves nothing. I’ll take smart-with-a-chip-on-its-shoulder any day over stupid. Cabin in the Woods is not, I argue, stupid.
Cabin in the Woods is not for everyone. Some will not get its central joke. Others will “get it” and not find it funny (which is valid, by the way). Even more others will “get it” and find it offensive, as if they are being called out. Well, perhaps they are. Fanboys, be careful when starting arguments about this movie or otherwise you’ll do damage to a cause. But at the end of the day, this is a good cause, and I support it. And I’m making this movie sound like it’s nothing but a senior thesis, when in actuality it’s wonderfully giddy. Two shots in particular made me laugh harder than I have at a movie in a while: one is a quick cutaway involving Whitford and Jenkins, and the other is a wide shot that is the funniest curtain-raiser to a third act I’ve seen in a long, long time.
What is The Cabin in the Woods, really? It’s a lot of things: horror film, comedy, fantasy, satire, confessional, and in the end it’s nothing less than a genre-busting meta-narrative. It wants to confront horror filmmakers, and horror audiences. And most especially it wants to take down horror films–all of them, and it does it by breaking the shackles of horror characters, allowing them to grow outside their cliches, and eventually travel into that great abyss: what happens outside the plot. Note how Cabin makes the point that most horror films are the same plots with interchangeable parts, and note how that informs Cabin’s third act, where effectively the barriers between worlds shatter in an intoxicating mess. Not since Adaptation has a movie so delightfully toyed with the mixing of realities.
But what is Cabin in the Woods ultimately about? The importance of making your own choices. Yes, even when you’re stuck as a character in a horror movie, it’s important to be true to yourself. And that means yourself, not what others think of you. Cabin in the Woods springs its final death trap, that of an apocalyptic moral dilemma, with such subtlety that a lot of viewers will miss what it’s doing, or what it represents. But it’s an element proving that Goddard and Whedon aren’t being all meta just for the hell of it–they have something to say about the importance of living in the way that you choose. Or dying. Or both.
Goddard and Whedon collaborated first on TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That series delighted in mocking and deconstructing horror clichés. This one takes it a full step further, and could perhaps be seen as the ultimate extension of the Whedon ethos: it doesn’t just tease or kid a genre. It pokes it, and then hits it, abuses it, and kills it, and then makes fun of anyone who liked it. Is that bullying or mercy? Or criticism? In a way, Cabin in the Woods is maybe the most ironically straightforward title you could ask for, because here’s a movie that starts with a cabin in the woods, and then burns it all to the ground, with a little sprinkle of salt so that nothing could grow again. Someone else will try, though. Damn fool kids.
NOTES: SPOILER! Are cameos spoilers, by definition? I think so. This movie has a few. Some will only register to fans of Whedon’s prior work. One of them, Hemsworth, hadn’t worked with Whedon when this film was made in 2009 (MGM’s bankruptcy delayed distribution), but now plays Thor in Whedon’s The Avengers, due out next month. Neat. Also, special attention goes to Amy Acker, who is just prominent enough that I don’t think she really counts as a cameo. But maybe you didn’t want to know that anyway…although if you didn’t, how did you get this far?
Another cameo is with someone Whedon has never worked with before (heh), and yet it brings his career full circle with satisfactory thoroughness. Not just for who this person is, but for what they represent. A lot of that happening in this movie, isn’t there?