The setup sounds like the start of a groaning joke: 5 attractive teenagers walk into a forest one day to spend the night in an isolated cabin…In the reels of a typical horror film, it’s a formula for slaughter. But Cabin in the Woods springs from the efforts of frequent collaborators Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and the result is a curious hybrid; a horror film for both fans and antagonists of horror fiction populated by interesting characters and monsters wittily drawn from the genre bestiary. As Whedon tells Total Film,
It’s basically a very loving hate letter…On some level it was completely a lark, me and Drew [Goddard, director] trying to figure out what the most fun we could have would be. On another level it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies…The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had sung a little too far in that direction.And so, polishing up Whedon’s star after the mess that was Dollhouse, here’s a film focused more on character and plot than on lingering sequences of gore and suffering framed by flimsy scenarios. The clever premise – the film’s setup is really part of a bigger plot orchestrated by mysterious technicians in a high-tech underground facility – simultaneously exploits and undermines the narrative mechanics of horror/slasher films. Of course we are being played, but we are not being played for fools. Evidence: an ending that would amount to the usual cheap twist of the knife if Whedon and Goddard didn’t build up to it and grant their characters the awareness to be active participants in the plot’s resolution. Instead of falling victim to the infamous last genre shot demonstrating the illusory nature of safety, the survivors face (with as much calm as one could reasonably expect) consequences that emerge from their own deliberate choice in an essentially no-win scenario.
Although events brim with playful irony, the narrative doesn’t escape the elemental cynicism of horror fiction in which humanity is not deemed worth saving. Cabin in the Woods differs from the usual horror, often bleak to the point of banality, by justifying the characters’ cynicism and bringing us to the unstable point that we can sympathize and, perhaps, uncomfortably agree with their climatic decision. That Whedon and Goddard do so with effective black humour makes the film that much sharper in its dismantling of horror film expectations.
Yet the film’s critique of horror’s formulaic destruction of innocents for audience entertainment is ultimately confined to the form and presentation of horror fiction rather than its substance. Far from being a deconstruction of the genre, Cabin in the Woods owes more to a clever bon mot at a cocktail party than a searing academic indictment. There’s no denying the film’s entertainment value, a quality helped immensely by violence modulated to avoid exploiting the characters’ suffering, and the point is well taken that horror as a genre has of late forsaken storytelling in favour of a pornographic obsession with bodily destruction. Missing, however, is a critique of horror’s metaphysical structure and fundamental assumptions. Beyond the question of why horror is fodder for entertainment – especially given how horror fiction is, by nature of being fiction, entirely optional – horror’s fear of death, mistrust of knowledge, and narrow focus on the survival of the strongest and most violent – are never called into question. Forget, then, the horror genre’s pessimism as manifested in the predictable trope ending, the aforementioned last shot that reinforces a perspective that good can never truly stand its ground against evil, let alone triumph. It is in these elements – violence as entertainment joined with a fear of death and the unknown – that the horror genre should be critiqued.
As it is, we are guided into cynicism through scenes such as the film’s most jarring, when the technicians obliviously celebrate a victory with their colleagues while the television screen behind them shows one of the teenagers enduring a savage, relentless beating. The callousness of the technicians, consistently revealed through the jaded, smarmy way in which they manipulate the teenagers to their deaths, makes it hard to feel much sympathy for their goals, however worthy. The end result is a film whose most notable strength is successfully putting audiences in a visegrip, with sympathies torn between the teenagers and the technicians.
Interestingly, there is the seed of a counterpoint to horror’s essential character – if you want to remain spoiler free, beware. After revealing that the teenagers’ death is America’s ritual to stave off the return of apocalyptic elder gods, and the world’s last hope after the failure of other rituals around the world, the glimpse of Japan’s ostensible “failure” remains unexamined for the insight it could offer. When we consider the violence intrinsic to the American ritual – the teenagers are to be slaughtered according to the technicians’ engineered scenario, and their option for survival is to resort to violence in return – the gentleness of the Japanese scenario is striking. In it, a group of schoolgirls defeat an evil ghost reminiscent of Samara from The Ring, not through a violent exorcism or bloody sacrifice, but by cheerfully placing the ghost’s spirit to rest in a frog. The ritual presumably fails because the ghost is supposed to kill the girls to satisfy and entertain the sleeping elder gods. What Cabin in the Woods fails to accomplish as a critique is questioning horror fiction’s tendency to reduce humanity to either victims or perpetrators of evil, with violence as the only mediator between suffering and the causes of suffering. Alternative methods of interpreting and confronting evil, as suggested by the Japanese ritual, are never considered.
For all that Cabin in the Woods amounts to criticizing politicians for their clothes but not their policies, it remains a brisk, engaging riff on horror storytelling. As strange as it might seem, the film is the closest I’ve ever seen a horror film come to being a crowd-pleaser.