Cabin in the Woods is a recent-ish film from Lost alum Drew Goddard and perennial geek favorite Joss Whedon. I say recent-ish because the film was shot in 2009 and then lay on a shelf for three years (as the whisper goes, because the studio wanted to force it into 3D post-processing) until finally seeing release this spring. The critics and the ever judgmental internet appear to love it, at least as much as they can in our age of useless score aggregation, and the film did reasonably well at the box office. If you’ve watched the trailer above, you know it’s a little different than your normal Cabin in the Woods-like movie, and if you’ve seen the film then you know how different. In some ways it is a complicated movie, and it invites a lot of discussion of the horror film genre. Its major problem is that it is not as prepared as it thinks for the conversation it invites.
If you haven’t yet seen the movie and are averse to spoilers, I would say stop reading this review now — seriously — because I am going to spoil things pretty hard in the paragraphs to come. If you want a parting word on the film’s value, I would say it is definitely worth seeing; if you can, make sure it’s in a crowded theater or with another group of first-time viewers. I went to see CitW on opening weekend, as a reprieve during my finals rush, and it was a wonderful group experience; I overheard more positive chatter on my walk through the parking lot than I have in a long, long time.
I emphasize now: despite the criticism I raise, this films deserves to be seen, especially if you like horror, and especially if you like things that are willing to pursue a crazy line of thought to uncertain ends.
Now hold onto your butts, from here on out I’m going to get insufferable.
Audiences and Ghosts both say “Boo”
Cabin in the Woods is a satirical horror-comedy that aims to criticize the horror-going audiences’ loathing of originality. The film takes the metatextual “final girl” elements of slasher movies as pioneered by scholar Carol Clover and makes them a part of the plot proper. It is, of course, not the first horror film to do this — Scream did it in 1996, and The Rise of Leslie Vernon did it in 2006. CitW’s difference lies in the manner of implementation; whereas in the earlier films the slasher “rules” were laid out simply as unquestionable Law — they were the things you did even if they didn’t make sense — CitW figures them as part of an ancient though questionable ritual to appease some nebulous “Gods” who have retreated from the world and lie dormant, leaving behind only fragmentary nightmares which are then turned jealously on a group of hedonistic teens.
The film makes the point repeatedly that the Gods demand this sacrifice out of some intrinsic loathing of the young protagonists. They hate their youth. To deconstruct the usual notion of “cannon fodder” characters in slasher films, CitW makes it a point to show how the teens are forced into their slasher film roles — the intelligent brunette dyes her hair blonde, and the chemicals placed in the dye by the puppet masters reduce her to a stereotype, while her forward-thinking athletic boyfriend is reduced to an alpha-as-fuck jock. And so on.
The final act of the film comes when the stoner character (designated the “Fool” by the puppetmasters) and the Final Girl descend into the puppetmasters’ extensive underground citadel and release every available monster to wreak havoc. The director of the puppetmasters attempts to persuade the kids to complete the ritual, for if they don’t the Gods will awake and destroy all existence. The stoner and the final girl deign not to, instead defeating the director and then smoking a jay while the world ends. “Let’s give someone else a shot,” they say. The final shot of the film, then, is an immense human hand tunneling up from Hell, destroying the puppetmasters’ facility, the titular cabin, and the camera.
The significance of an ancient eldritch God’s hand being so human is of course self-evident. The Gods are the audience who bitches and moans whenever a horror film does not meet their expectations: a group of beautiful young people who indulge in hedonism, show their lithe young bodies, and then are systematically slaughtered by a shadowy displacement of the Id.
This reading of the film is not incorrect, but it ignores certain elements and implications.
“Let’s split up”
As Zizek would tell us, ad nauseum:
Should we agree that the satirical reading I offered in the last section is more or less correct, then herein lies Cabin in the Woods‘ greatest problematic. It engineers a situational conflict (one that may not exist, as I shall argue) and then begs for a solution to this conflict. But its solution is nothing more than “let the world end.”
Cabin in the Woods is incredibly critical of the machinery of the stereotypical horror film, and at the same time it is far too reliant on this same machinery to actually pose another model of dramatic action.
The film asks for a third way but it cannot seriously propose it. Consider, as I have said, how it makes the college students more than walking tropes so you actually feel bad when they’re manipulated and murdered. Near the end of the film, when the puppermaster techs feel they have successfully completed the ritual, they bust out the champagne and hold a party while on the monitors behind them Dana, the chosen Final Girl, is being tortured by the monster du jour.
By figuring the slasher film tropes as a form of punishing ritual (we are told the college kids need to “suffer” to please the Gods), CitW follows in the footsteps of Rene Girard in making human culture copacetic scapegoat ritual and sacrifice. This sort of sacred violence is something the film appears to reject; if a society needs orchestrations of innocent suffering, then it is not worth perpetuating. In the scene I just described the sadism inherent in horror films is put on display for critique — but is then immediately thwarted by what is easily the most compelling sequence in the movie, the “purging” nonsense when every available slasher or horror film monster is released on the puppetmasters. Since the opening of the film, the techs themselves are gestured at as having remarkably mundane lives outside the office, which might at first seem to be attempt to humanize them.
The problem is that the sheer fun of the purge control sequence, the cornucopia of ridiculous slaughter, effaces much if not most or all of the qualms we might have. Just like the Gods who need to see the teens suffer, we now desire to see the callous old corporate white people suffer — they are the ones scapegoated, they are the new sacrifice. But the social order their sacrifice create is, by the film’s own logic, entirely untenable. The stoner and the final girl have no choice at the end of the film but to let the entire world be destroyed, because as critical as the film is of systems of oppression, as critical as it is of horror convention, it cannot imagine a world without oppression, and indeed, cannot imagine a horror film without convention.
It is a problem the film makes for itself. The type of slasher flick it critiques hasn’t been popular since at least the late 80s or early 90s, and the film’s main point of reference is The Evil Dead, which in its own way is already as self-aware as this movie. Furthermore, the past few years have seen plenty of unusual, original films that more ably criticize slasher-centered or sadistic horror films — Inside, Martyrs, Antichrist, though notably CitW is not as hostile toward its viewers as these films — or offer something more off the beaten path — Paranormal Activity, Let the Right One In, The Innkeepers.
CitW, in contrast to these films, does not (consistently or clearly) invite any genuine affective response. It does not know who it wants us to sympathize with and how, and (here we get a bit subjective) it’s not particularly scary. It is a very cynical comedy film, really, which uses a horror film backdrop.
“What’s your favorite scary movie?”
Near the end of the film, one of the tech guys encounters a merman. It has been set up that he wants to see a merman for some reason, so this is obviously Chekhov’s merfolk. It’s one of the monsters that can attack the kids in the cabin. After the stoner and the final girl have released said monster, the man is knocked to the floor during the fracas. He whips around as something scuttles through the gloom toward him; the music rises as it comes into view; it is horrible, unlike any eroticized or romanticized notion of merfolk, a terrible pinch-faced monstrosity with slimy skin and sharp teeth. This is it, the man has finally seen the merman, and he says…
Something like “Come on” in a disappointed tone. The music cuts out and the thing unceremoniously chews through his neck.
This whole sequence bothers me for a few reasons. The first is: why in the hell is this guy disappointed? What the fuck did the think he was going to see when he saw a merman? It makes no sense for him to expect a Little Mermaid-style shell-brassiered sea vixen, because everything the puppetmasters keep under locks is a horrifying monstrosity. What did he expect? He’s been waiting for this moment, so it should be something sublime, a quasi-religious experience like the one the film’s ritual is meant to instantiate. Why won’t the film let him be happy at his moment of death — why can’t he be afraid?
In Cabin in the Woods we don’t know where our sympathies lie, with the techs or with the teens, because it makes us laugh at them and cheer at their misfortunes despite ourselves. We also don’t know if we should genuinely be frightened for the characters because the monsters and terrors, too, are always presented as in some way laughable, not really scary at all. It denies both the notion of religious awe and sublime terror. “Feeling things sincerely is for people who aren’t as detached and hip as us,” the film suggests. “All this crap from scary movies? It’s been run into the ground. It’s not scary at all.”
As much as I think the film wants to celebrate the horror genre, it can’t bring itself to present anything but an ambivalent parody of everything that’s come before it. The entire film is almost literally in scare quotes. It ends up being just a sort of carnivalization of the genre, which is loads of fun certainly, but is not necessarily constructive in the way the film seems to want to be, or to want people to think it is. I’ve read plenty of reviews saying CitW is a “new story” or a “new genre” — and it isn’t. A collection of cliches played for laughs has been around a while, and it’s called a parody.
I suppose another way of reading the film, then, would be as a parodic take on the whole post-Scream metahorror phenomenon. Scream, as I mentioned, popularized the invocation of Clover’s slasher tropes as plot dressing, in that particular franchise’s case as an added layer of complexity to a gruesome murder mystery (which was itself a gesture to the origin point of the slasher film, Hitchcock’s Psycho). Yet now that we think we know the rules we can invoke them constantly to justify this or that — the dumb woman needs to show her boobs before she gets her throat slit because that’s the rule! — and hey it’s no big deal because we know the rules so we do it ironically.
The problem, of course, is that even if you’re winking and laughing the entire time you’re still following the rules. You don’t make them go away, you don’t make them any less tired or gratuitous. As the rules and tropes multiply, filling more tightly packed genre compartments, as meta-awareness grows larger and wider, the whole thing literally become more than the filmmaker or viewer can possibly keep under control. This ironic meta-awareness seeps outward into the genre, until it becomes less a single aspect than it is the genre entirely — and thus horror destroys itself, kicking back to smoke a jay and have a good time, collapsing into the void of its own complacent self-knowledge.