This review contains spoilers for some of the first half of Cabin in the Woods.
Although Scream was a clever and effective takedown of the concept of the slasher movie, it wasn’t the best postmodern take on “scary” movies that it could have been. This is because there exists a certain sort of movie that it was forgetting about: the supernatural horror movie. Scream had Halloween, the first couple of Friday the 13th films, and other knife-wielding-maniac movies covered, but it didn’t have anything in common with Freddy Kruger, Pinhead, or any of the legions of zombies out there. Enter Joss Whedon, who, just before he took the reins of Marvel’s Avengers, had an idea in his back pocket which could cover similar ground as Scream, but do it even better: 2012’s Cabin in the Woods.
Supposedly written in three days by Whedon and director Drew Goddard (a writer on Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series who later wrote the movie Cloverfield), the script is phenomenally complicated and almost defies plot summary. Suffice it to say that five college students played by Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams are headed to spend a weekend at the titular cabin. Apparently they’re destined to be in the most obvious horror movie in the world, but here is your minor spoiler: our young heroes’ gruesome fate is being managed from a remote compound by Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman from The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (Oscar-nominated for The Visitor), for reasons unknown. This shouldn’t be a spoiler – Whitford and Jenkins are in the very first scene of the film – but the full reason that they do what they do is better left for audiences to discover on their own.
In many ways, Whitford and Jenkins are playing stand-ins for Whedon and Goddard: two men who are attempting to construct a story whereby normal kids are turned into victims of horrific violence. Not only that, but it’s their job to make sure that those deaths are a desirable thing, that everyday people would cheer for that turn of events. They’re villains who believe themselves to be the heroes in the stories of their lives, in a way that very few horror films have ever done; certainly none of the horror movies that Cabin in the Woods is satirizing attempt that characterization.
Instead, most of those older films took a monster who was an unstoppable force, and ran him through the same brutal formula again and again until audiences rooted for him out of their own misandry. The five archetypes that our protagonists are supposed to fall into (the Athlete, the Scholar, the Fool, the Whore, and the Virgin) each carry a negative connotation that may cause the audience to look down upon them, and claim that they’re “asking for it” (perhaps the Virgin is asking for it the least, but as we all know, in some horror films she buys the farm anyway). It’s not coincidence that Whitford and Jenkins use drugs and other subtle manipulation to enhance those negatives, making the evil’s killing job easier but also making it easier for them to stand in judgment of the victims and their foolishness, in the same way that the audience stands in judgment of characters who do foolish things in horror films. Here Whitford and Jenkins might be standing in for the writer and director of a later Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, in which Freddy’s wisecracks and the bloody deaths are far more important to the film’s success than any of the bland heroes.
Moreover, the people in the compound can’t see, with a typical horror-film character’s lack of self-awareness, that their story is itself a horror movie. Their part of the story features an Athlete (the square-jawed security man played by Brian White), a Scholar (Jenkins), a Fool (Whitford), and a Whore (Amy Acker; her character doesn’t have much of a libido, but then, the movie’s Virgin isn’t a virgin). There’s no Virgin in the compound, but that is fitting in a way, since the Virgin has always represented innocence in horror films, and no one in the compound is innocent. They’re undone by their own foolishness and indulgences, just as the protagonists in any horror film are. It would be too big a spoiler to reveal who the monster is in this reading of the film, but it suffices to say that there is one, and it’s a big one.
Deeper and deeper into the funhouse this film goes, forcing the horror genre look at its own reflection in an increasingly distorted mirror, until all we are left with is one thing: the rage of characters who don’t want to go through the paces we as an audience put them through. If the “last girl” in a typical horror movie could suddenly become aware of the machinery behind her suffering, we are told, she wouldn’t like what she would see. The suffering that the audience demands in the name of entertainment, the sort of indifference that turned Jason Voorhees into an audience surrogate in his later outings … at some point it can go too far and become cruelty for cruelty’s sake. There’s nothing that the last girl would not give up to destroy that kind of cruelty, just as there’s nothing that Whedon and Goddard would not put into this film in their quest to give us smarter, more humane horror movies. The world of film is all the better for their efforts.
Reviewed by Mark Young