The Cabin in the Woods
Drew Goddard and the recently cancelled Joss Whedon attested that The Cabin in the Woods, bashed out over an intensive weekend, represented a critique of and love letter to the horror movie. Such a mission statement shouldn’t be that much of a surprise from Whedon, the guy who made meta a badge of pride throughout his various pop-culture-littered TV shows and movies. But it’s as a consequence of that very element that The Cabin in the Woods also very easily invites another layer of reading; indeed, not to read it this way invites a response that’s more towards the typically shallow end of Whedon’s favoured pool, rather than the slightly more substantial one Goddard tends to prefer.
Hadley: I just think it would have been cooler with a merman.
With regard to the horror riff, though, Goddard and Whedon proffer a Lovecraftian concoction, wherein the typical teens/students go to the typical cabin in the woods (The Evil Dead, basically) but rapidly discover things are not quite what they seem. They have been selected as offerings to the Ancient Ones, in order to sate the latters’ appetites and stave off the destruction of all humanity. Similar rituals take place across the world (I’d be interested to see how the English one goes down. Perhaps something involving Edward Woodward; we’re shown one based on J-horror and there’s reference to a Stockholm ritual). In America, it takes the form of your classic (or bog-standard) horror movie, in which the jock (athlete), the slut (whore), the stoner (fool) and the brain (scholar) are systematically dispatched, with the pure cardboard scream queen (virgin) an optional extra but permitted to survive.
The Director: What’s happening to you is part of something bigger. Something older than anything known.
This is an effective set up, albeit obviously in the lineage of Scream’s commentary on genre tropes. Whedon and Goddard are able to throw some shade on torture porn too (albeit not dwelling on any of the offending gruesomeness, since neither attests to be a fan), along with the affinity the genre has for transgressive behaviour (it’s not a little ironic to hear Whedon claiming sensitivity over blurring titillation and degradation in the scene where topless Anna Hutchinson’s Jules – the whore – is murdered as she and Chris Hemsworth’s Curt – the athlete – as are making out. Whedon, after all, is alleged to have insisted on the Flash falling “amusingly” on top of Wonder Woman in the Justice League reshoots, becoming most irate when Gal Gadot protested this was vulgar and degrading. Notable too, given Whedon’s rumoured affairs on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that Dana is having a relationship with her college professor).
Marty: Why is Jules suddenly a celeb-tard and since when does Curt pull this alpha-male bullshit?
Nevertheless, there’s fun to be had in the pursuit and retreat from tropes; the parties are drugged/gassed to ensure they conform to stereotypes, and it is only thanks to the resistance that comes through the super-strength weed habit of Marty (Fran Kranz, previously of Whedon’s Dollhouse) that the game plan is disrupted. Although, while this is presented as a reversal, I’m sure I’ve seen the “stoner wins out” as something of a trope in itself. At very least, the least-likely guy in the room proving the most effective when called to action is something for which Goddard clearly has an affinity (Bad Times at the El Royale doubling down on this). The geek-chic quipping is all Whedon, though.
The cast are all reliably proficient, although Hemsworth – he won Thor and Red Dawn on the strength of his work here – Kranz and Kristen Connolly (as virgin Dana) are the standouts. Curiously, or perhaps it isn’t, Whedon and Goddard avoid drawing attention to another trope, that of killing off the token black character (Jesse Williams’ Holden McCrea). There are lots of raves about Sigourney Weaver’s cameo, but I don’t think she’s anything special (and I’m generally a Sigourney fan).
Hadley: These fucking zombies. Remember when you could just throw a girl into a volcano?
It’s refreshing how little time Goddard wastes; he’s straight in with the set-up, whereby, we’re signalled that something else is going on in the opening credits. These feature lab guys Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, and subsequently a guy on the protagonists’ roof as the quintet set off on their weekend retreat. By the hour mark, we’re past the “Zombie Redneck Torture Family” and into the DUMB. And it’s all over by just past an hour and a half. I’m sure they could have extended The Cabin in the Woods, but that tight, punchy quality is to the movie’s credit.
Marty: Yeah. I had to dismember that guy with a trowel.
Where the picture distinguishes itself structurally and tonally is with Gary (Jenkins) and Steve (Whitford), overseeing proceedings in disarmingly (or alarmingly) casual manner. They’re aided by an entire team including Wendy (Amy Acker, a Whedon regular) and Daniel (Brian J White, whose character rather loses purpose after being set up for one; maybe that was supposed to be clever too).
One might argue this “unseen mastermind” approach is no more than an oh-so-clever riff on Saw. On the one hand, much of this represents standard-issue Whedon irreverence, with Steve complaining about the chosen monster (“I am never going to see a merman”) and an office party starting up when it looks like their weekend work is over (this is possibly the best-delivered scene, staged with monitors showing Dana’s apparent final minutes, disregarded amid the celebrations). There’s even more comedy yucking later, as Dana and Marty unleash the facility’s entire complement of monsters, who proceed to wreak gruesome havoc (these including riffs on Hellraiser and It).
The Director: It’s our task to placate the ancient ones. And it’s yours to be offered up to them.
On the commentary track, Whedon and Goddard trip over themselves somewhat in explaining their sympathies for Gary and Steve: “It’s all about belief systems and they’re both correct in their belief systems” suggests Goddard, while Whedon equivocates slightly with the “If at some point to maintain order, we have to become so cruel…” Goddard then suggests the controllers and the students represent “the difference between youth and adulthood” whereby “You start to understand why we do these things, but that doesn’t make it right”.
Which is a curious position, since Gary and Steve are closer to Auschwitz guards in this context than a Wall Street broker (I know some might say there’s little difference, and I know – since Gina Carano has just been cancelled for it by double-standards Disney – you’re not allowed to make any glib references to Nazis for fear of being treated in a Woke-Nazi manner yourself. Oops, I just did it again). Whedon and Goddard have, with their “deciding that people are more important than humanity” choice on Marty’s part – in the kind of betrayal that can only come from a loosely defined character, Dana decides to kill him, but fails – opted not to cop out on your classic utilitarian dilemma (as in, movies tend to present the hero with such a choice, but then allow him or her to have their cake and eat it).
Sitterson: For the blessed peace of your eternal slumber.
Which is refreshing on the one hand, but one does wonder about their “sympathy for the devil” approach to Gary and Steve having “reasons”. Particularly if we separate out the elements of their plot. After all, as they also note, there’s an extent to which people – as in, one’s immediate circle – are humanity, and so one choice is any choice. And in terms of movie metaphors, it’s easy to regard the students’ atypical presence in this scenario, apparent freely motivated individuals under sinister control, as a metaphor for humanity’s lot generally, operating under a delusion of choice beneath the strictures of an enclosed grid. One in which all major problems martialled to afflict us are at the express intent of overlords in deep underground bases, or similar, who regard us as a subspecies and therefore fit only for their sick relish and contempt when we ultimately meet our doom. And crucially, we have to consent to it (make a choice of our own freewill, but on their terms).
Whedon and Goddard offer the olive branch of Gary and Steve having a “higher” motive for their cruelty, but those expressly intent on picking off humanity (as a whole), until only the virgin survives (those easily manipulated and affected, most likely the young) for a brave new world, would likely claim that they too are nobly motivated, in their own twisted, perverse fashion.
Marty: I’m sorry I let you be attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world.
At one point on the commentary track, Goddard reports that Whedon decided he would direct The Cabin in the Woods (Whedon, conveniently, has no recollection of this. He probably also has no recollection of the behaviour alleged by getting-on-for the entire female cast of Buffy. Of course, Whedonverse associates with a cloud of accusations hanging over them are nothing new – see also Seth Green). There are times where Goddard’s inexperience shows – Bad Times at the El Royale is much more polished – but his is solid work on a well-shot production (the cinematographer is Evil Dead II’s Peter Deming). Indeed, my criticism of The Cabin in the Woods extends more towards being able to hear too much of Whedon’s voice in it – hearing it has become an ever-less enticing thing as the decades roll on – meaning the movie as a whole feels more definably the offspring of Buffy and Angel than the guy also known for working for JJ Abrams.