The Cabin in the Woods
April 18, 2012
Advisory: The Cabin in the Woods is best seen with as little foreknowledge as possible. Not to say that there’s a huge twist, as quite a bit is revealed fairly early on, but a lot of its pleasure comes in watching where it goes. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed it quite a lot, and you should see it if horror films are anywhere near your wheelhouse, and quite frankly, even if they’re not.
The problem with calling attention to the inner-workings of a work is that it breaks the spell of suspended disbelief and, oftentimes, removes the gutteral, emotional effectiveness of said work. We could talk about Brecht, and you’d probably argue that better than me, dear reader, but if you can see how a magician achieves an illusion, the power of that illusion evaporates. When this sort of self-aware, post-modern (do we still call it that?) approach finally hit America through its booming 90s indie scene (a full 30 years after France did considerably more interesting things with it), it felt like the death of sincerity in certain ways. It’s sort of assimilated itself into a lot of Hollywood and, especially, TV output since then, though perhaps in no other genre more so than horror. Scream is the obvious one, providing a winking “we know the tropes” attitude while still falling for them hook, line, and sinker. Those films (decreasingly, it should be said) tried to be serious slasher flicks, and if I didn’t particularly care for them, they did work to revitalize the largely dormant sub-genre – for a brief time, anyway. Joss Whedon’s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its spin-off, Angel) were arguably the high-water mark for horror trope deconstructions. The format allowed Whedon and his team of writers to have fun with a wide variety of genre clichés. It was never a scary show, of course, but the duration of a television season allowed Whedon to develop his characters in such a way that the trappings didn’t matter anymore because we were invested in Buffy and Angel and the Scooby Gang. Whedon produced and co-wrote Cabin in the Woods with Angel alum Drew Goddard, who also makes his directorial debut, and it features the kind of subversive wit and genre awareness that marked their TV work. It’s not scary, which might be a problem, but it’s endlessly entertaining, not just because of those trademarks, but because of the way it handles how to progress from them.
The first part (I didn’t clock it, so I won’t say half) largely deals with deconstructing the horror genre. We get an amusing opening scene between two men in an office (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) discussing mundane things about their live, where we’re given a pretty good idea of what they do and what is going to happen, before there’s a title card that must be a nod to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which itself was something of a deconstruction of the horror genre, only one charged with an air of utter contempt for its audience. We then get the five college students preparing for a trip to the titular cabin in the woods, and we learn that they only broadly fit into the stereotypes set out by the film of a jock, a brain, a whore, a fool, and a virgin. The film then cuts between the underground facility and the events in the cabin that it is controlling. It is this section that is most interested in deconstruction and will, perhaps, inspire the most undergraduate essays of any single horror film for a number of years.
The cross cutting between the puppets and the puppeteers does indeed take a certain tension away, and I’m not sure there was ever any way to get around that. I’m forgiving, however, because all of it is littered with amusing, sometimes very funny moments, as well as being absolutely rich with ideas. I’d also have to admit that to a large extent I enjoyed this section just trying to work out what Whedon and Goddard were specifically trying to say as they subvert and/or highlight the genre expectations. It is not, I hasted to add, a purely academic think piece. The humour is extensive and effective, and even if you don’t care about what anyone is trying to say, the gags work incredibly well. This is partly due to the editing rhythms as well as the pure visual jokes (the Japanese counterpart’s attempt to run the operation is very, very good), but it mostly boils down to the sardonic, seen-it-all attitude of Jenkins and the cynical quick wit of Whitford, who is the (obvious and deserving) stand out.
It’s all well and good to set up a situation and then pull it apart, but thankfully Goddard and Whedon understood that it wasn’t enough to fill an entire movie. Indeed, the opening section might be the one most picked apart, but it’s the latter portion that truly makes it something special. Despite all the in-jokes, the references, and the knowing nods, Cabin in the Woods turns out to be remarkably adept at the structural reveal. We have a good idea of what is going on from the very start, but never why. Once the why begins to come into focus, we then get a third act surge into an unexpected insanity that is nothing less than thrilling. It turns out that the only way for ‘meta’ to go is out, and what could have been an amusing exercise turns into a genuinely thrilling movie-going experience.
So in the end it is a lot of fun, but what is Cabin in the Woods trying to say? It is, certainly, some degree of commentary on the horror genre, especially if you believe that the highest form of criticism is filmmaking itself. The film will be – and has been, if you look online – interpreted in a number of fashions, and it lends itself to that. There is certainly a minor strand about how we fear the rural, but it’s the organized, industrial space we should really be afraid of, and that is one of many. You can argue that Whitford and Jenkins are stand-ins for filmmakers and writers, forced into actions they have no interest in to satiate the desire of the Old Ones, who may be audiences or studio heads. These are all valid, to be sure, but for me what stuck out was this notion of manipulating reality to fit into a specific morality. “The Old Ones” could be just that: old notions of gods that set forth a narrow notion of ‘the good life’ and the morality that entails. Horror films, traditionally, are incredibly conservative. The jokes about the slut and the drunk/drug user getting killed aren’t based on fiction, after all. The youths in Cabin in the Woods have to be drugged and manipulated into acting like the stereotypes the Old Ones expect so they can be punished. Horror itself is an intrinsic part of our culture, and always has been. The genre has produced innumerable stories and parables to demonstrate the consequences of acting against the standard codes, and we as an audience tend to lap it up, implicitly agreeing with those codes as we enjoy the destruction of those who break them. Cabin in the Woods believes that these notions of youth and morality are false. It is contemptuous against stereotypes, and because of that, the world ends. Draw from that what you will.