Warning: total spoilers.
It’s no overstatement to say that The Cabin in the Woods should really be subtitled Joss Whedon Brings The Meta. As a movie, I… don’t quite know what to make of it. I went in with few expectations beyond horror, Whedonosity and probable twistyness, and came out feeling like I’d just watched a TV Tropes-inspired 101 instructional film on how not to make horror movies. By that, I don’t mean that Cabin itself was so bad as to constitute a cautionary tale: I mean that it quite literally sets out to educate cinemagoers – and, presumably, other filmmakers – on how not to make horror movies. The whole piece functions as a deliberate deconstruction of the archetypal horror-style five man band composed (as Cabin has it) of the Whore, Athlete, Fool, Scholar and Virgin. This isn’t subtextual, wink-at-the-audience deconstruction like you’ll find in the Scream franchise or the out-and-out mockery of the comedic Scary Movie and its ilk, either, but a balls-out synthesis of both approaches that walks – and sometimes, teeters wildly over – the line between heavy-handed satire and straight entertainment.
Buckle up, readers. We’re here for the long haul.
Right from the outset, Cabin takes the gutsy step of committing openly to two parallel storylines, one of which acts as a meta critique of the other. In one, college friends Dana (the Virgin), Jules (the Whore), Curt (the Athlete), Holden (the Scholar) and Marty (the Fool) embark upon the titular and archetypal exercise of driving out to spend a weekend at a remote woodland cabin owned by Curt’s cousin. In the other, a team of mysterious scientists working in a high-tech lab setting monitor the friends as they progress towards their destination, which is, as we soon find out, an environment both designed and controlled by this second cast of characters. As the story unfolds, we cut between the two narratives with an increasing sense of unease: clearly, the techs – headed by Sitterson, Hadley and Lin – have somehow orchestrated the entire getaway for the sole purpose of putting the five protagonists in horrific danger.
On discovering a creepy cellar stacked with every MacGuffin and Checkhov’s Gun known to horror – eerie dolls, weird masks, haunted clothes, demonic jewelry, devil-summoning puzzles, creepy music boxes and freakish diaries, to name but a few – the sadism of the scientists is made suddenly clear: not only have the five protagonists been brought to the cabin to die, but they’re also forced to choose their own mode of death, their path set by which of the many damned objects they unwittingly activate. When Dana reads from a diary containing the last words of Patience Buckner, a girl killed in 1903 as part of a torture-ritual by her sadistic, pain-worshipping hillbilly family, the zombie-Buckners burst from the ground nearby and the game is on.
But Marty, the Fool of a stoner, thinks something’s up. Having noticed the behavioural changes his friends have started to undergo (courtesy of the various chemicals pumped into the cabin by the controlling tech-team) and seemingly inoculated against same by his constant weed-smoking, it’s not long before he accidentally uncovers a camera and realises the extent of their manipulation. While the friends are fighting and dying, he manages to convince Dana that ‘puppet-masters’ are ultimately responsible for what’s happening to them – a revelation that primes the two separate narrates for an ultimate collision.
The thing about running two parallel narratives is that, of necessity, it’s going to cut into the characterisation. Thanks to the talented writer/director team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard – the latter of whom was also a staff writer for Buffy – good dialogue goes a long way towards ameliorating this fact. The opening banter between Sitterson, Hadley and Lin is a fantastic balance of witty humdrum and slow reveal, effortlessly creating a sense of wrongness and unease when placed in the context of their actions. However, it’s only really the scientists who benefit from this: the other five characters are, purposefully, stereotypes, and though some effort is made to transcend that fact – Curt’s initial kindness and cleverness, Holden’s rare status as a black intellectual character – it’s only Marty, with his quirky Whedonesque dialogue, who appears as a whole, unique person. What this means in terms of the film is that, while we care enough about the other protagonists to mourn their deaths, they never stop being stereotypes – and even though that’s a deliberate choice, it’s not ultimately a successful one. (We’ll come to why later.)
In terms of pacing, the film moves smoothly through the first half and transitions to the final third with a skillful switch-flipping act break, but that’s where things start to get sticky. As lone survivors Dana and Marty infiltrate the scientists’ lair, the two narratives are brought into collision, and while the action arguably increases – or at least, gets knocked up a notch – the narrative theme shifts gear in a way that makes the story feel slow. If you’ve ever seen Into the Woods, it’s a bit like the moment near the middle of Act Two when the fairy tale characters suddenly notice the ever-present narrator, freak out and kill him, an action which forces them to depart from the story as known to the audience and strike out on their own. In fact, it’s exactly like that moment, with the key difference being that while Into the Woods employs the broken fourth wall device to explore character relationships and overturn archetypes, Cabin uses it as an excuse to create a gory-hilarious, Edgar Wright style bloodbath starring every single horror monster imaginable, with special emphasis on the giant snake. And while these final scenes certainly succeed at being blackly comic, they don’t really serve to unite the two thematically different stories that have preceded them.
Narratively, Cabin is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it’s an overt deconstruction of the most overdone slasher-horror stereotypes, while on the other, it’s a self-aware film that nonetheless uses those stereotypes as the backbone of the plot. For anyone even vaguely trope-literate, there’s nothing new in recycling the same old characters, even – and perhaps especially – if the whole point of doing so is to name and shame them as such. The ultimate explanation for this – that the terrible Dark Gods the scientists are serving need to see the archetypes fulfilled as a form of ritual sacrifice – is both riddled with fridge logic (which we’ll come to) and deeply unsatisfying in terms of the actual deconstruction itself. Holden’s death is a case in point: even though Cabin avoids the ultimate cliche of having the black dude die first, the fact that Holden still doesn’t make it to the end – or, rather, the fact that the issue of race is the one universally acknowledged horror-trope that the meta-narrative fails to so much as wink at, let alone address openly – is indicative of the film’s ambivalent commitment to self-deconstruction.
Or, to put it another way: it would have been much more interesting and far less heavy-handed to blur the archetype categories and cast multiple actors of colour. Marty, who was essentially presented as asexual, could have doubled with Dana as the Virgin – a narratively viable move which could have altered the ending in any number of ways. Curt and Holden were potentially interchangeable as both Scholar and Athlete – from the opening scenes, each of them qualified easily for either role – while making a male character the Whore would have been genuinely fascinating. And this ought really to have been possible: because while the archetype categories were openly named in the final scenes, it was also stated that when it came to Dana’s not being an actual virgin, the scientists were willing and able to ‘work with what [they’ve] got.’
Which is where, for me, the whole of Cabin fell down. I can deal with two thematically opposing narratives – one straight, one meta – that end up colliding in a blood-stained, crazycakes battle that plays out like the lovechild of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead on hallucinogenic meth. I can deal with witty, realistic dialogue that only works to elevate half the cast above the level of stereotype while making the rest merely exemplary forms of the same; and I can even deal with a tropetastic film whose ultimate reliance on the very archetypes it exists to critique leaves it vulnerable to self-sabotage.
What I cannot deal with is the existence of giant, gaping logic-holes in an overarching narrative whose sole purpose is to make all the other contradictions viable.
So: every year for the whole of history, human beings all over the world have brought their horror-archetype stories to life in order to feed the blood of the victims to the Ancient Ones below – demonic, evil gods who, if denied at least one annual sacrifice from somewhere on Earth, will rise up and destroy humanity. OK. I can roll with that, except for the part that it makes no fucking sense. The entire point of the film is that the scientists have to enact horror stories as rituals, so that any deviation from the script – such as, for instance, the Virgin dying anything other than last – will invalidate the sacrifice. And yet, at the same time, it apparently doesn’t matter that the Virgin isn’t really a virgin – and if this seemingly crucial element is malleable, then why not everything else? If it were just a normal horror story, perhaps I wouldn’t care so much; but in the context of Cabin being almost solely about deconstruction, it matters that the given excuse for the stereotyped character format – We Had To, Because Ritual – doesn’t actually apply. It’s a continuity goof that screws not only the plausibility of the straight narrative, but the thematic goal of the meta. Unless it’s a double bluff and Whedon and Goddard were deliberately being lazy to somehow highlight out the laziness of others (which, if so, no), there’s no way to make it work – and that disappoints me, because if there’s one thing I don’t expect from Joss Whedon, it’s half-assed deconstruction.
This isn’t the only instance of fridge logic, but it is the most pointed, and the one which, for me, takes the most shine off the film. Stepping back from my own neurotic preferences, I can acknowledge that, quite possibly, I’m reading too much into things, and that maybe I should just be content to let Sleeping Gods lie. But even then, this doesn’t work, because Cabin is still a thematic mess. As a horror film, it’s jumpy, neither wholly the black comedy a la Edgar Right implied by the level of self-reference or the pure, straight-up shockfest implied by the advertising. It might have worked as a hybrid of the two, if not for the utter lack of synthesis or cathersis achieved by the ending – but instead, it’s a chimaera.
As a piece of deconstruction, it never rises above the level of a basic introduction to tropes. Remove the fansquee factor of Joss Whedon bringing the meta, and you’re left with a film which, while good fun in many places, informative in others and certainly original in terms of its execution (if not, as discussed, its archetypes), is neither as clever nor revelatory as its smugness seems to suggest its creators think it is. I won’t deny that it was fun to see Buffyverse alums Amy Acker and Tom Lenk working together, but Joss Whedon’s Favourite Actors isn’t a genre, and it doesn’t compensate for the presence of so many missteps.
Ultimately, despite my reservations, I suspect that The Cabin in the Woods is a necessary film – not because it does what no story has done before, but because it so unequivocally comments on what shouldn’t be done again. Given my druthers, it will forever stand as a 95 minute argument against the lazy application of horror tropes – and when it comes to the actual blood and gore, Cabin manages what is, perhaps ironically, its single best feat of deconstruction. The violence is short, sharp and brutal: minus the usual emphasis on drawn-out screams, running through darkened hallways, struggling with monstrous aggressors and retch-inducing torture porn, the fact that we genuinely do care for the characters, stereotypes and all, makes their deaths unusually horrific. As the audience watches the scientists watching the suffering, we’re invited to critique our own enjoyment of horror films – to ask why, when confronted with such brutal deaths, we persist in finding them entertaining at all.
Given that Cabin is still a horror film, this is arguably not the most effective course of action – rather like Sucker Punch’s failed attempt to critique the same vouyerism it was ultimately peddling. Nonetheless, I’ll give Whedon and Goddard more credit than to put them on the same level as Zack Snyder: Cabin’s violence is neither constantly sexualised, unduly graphic nor unnecessarily protracted, and instead relies on the audience’s emotional connection with the victims to convey its horror. And then there’s the ending – rocks fall, everyone dies, and eldritch gods rise, Cthulhu-like, from their ancient slumber, ready to destroy the world as we know it. This happens because Dana first fails to kill Marty and then refuses to, so that the film ends with our two bloodied survivors smoking a joint as the whole world cracks beneath them. It’s completely out of keeping with their characters – Dana’s will to survive, Marty’s intelligent self-analysis – and seemingly exists for no better reason than that it makes a good punchline. Maybe you’ll find it otherwise, but for me, it rankled: a final thumbing of the nose at everything in the film that should have worked, but didn’t.
The Cabin in the Woods is a tropetastic, self-analytic and deconstrutive horror romp starring torture zombies, college students, creepy scientists and a Bonus! giant snake. Whedon fans will enjoy his trademark dialogue and sense of the meta, though horror fans might be baffled as to what the hell he and Goddard are doing in their genre. Personally, it’s a question I’m still trying to answer – and maybe I never will.