Cabin in the Woods (2012)
There has been a lot of critical discussion of Cabin in the Woods that starts by tip toeing around the issue of spoilers, warning you to watch the film before you read anything about it and that having anything spoiled will ruin the film.
I certainly hope those critics don’t actually think that’s the case because Cabin in the Woods spoils it’s oh so secretive premise in the very first scene. If this was supposed to be building up to some incredible twist reveal then the filmmakers botched it massively. However, I have a little more faith in Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon than that.
That said there are some nice reveals in the later part of the film and this review will be spoilerific so I would watch the film before reading further.
Have you watched it? No, you’d still like a plot summary? Well suit yourself.
Cabin in the Woods is ostensibly your traditional Spam in a Cabin film. 5 young adults, the jock, the stoner, the slutty one, the smart one and the virgin head out to a cabin in the woods to drink too much, have sex with each other and then get murdered by (insert random monster here).
So far so generic but that is exactly what Cabin in the Woods sets out to do and it immediately starts subverting these genre conventions. For starters our characters aren’t quite the archetypes they seem to be. Our dumb blonde is in fact a med student and she’s not even a real blonde. Our alpha male is a sensitive sociology student and our brain is actually a decent football player. As for our virgin, well, she just broke up from a distinctly sexual affair with her professor.
Even stranger the whole set up appears to have been staged by some kind of secret organisation. For reasons that are initially unclear they’re creating the circumstances of a typical Slasher movie. For example; they’ve dyed one characters’ hair blonde and added a chemical to the dye that basically makes her super horny and decreases her intelligence thus creating the horny dumb blonde they need for their horror film.
These controllers sit in a high tech bunker underneath the titular cabin and manipulate events with chemicals and light cues to, not exactly force, but certainly heavily push our protagonists into doing what they want. And what they want is our heroes to go into the basement where, in one of the film’s better ideas, there is a huge variety of bizarre and creepy objects that will each summon a different monster. In a brilliantly over the top scene the friends are each seconds away from summoning a different evil force while the guys in the bunker bet on what the outcome will be. Eventually it’s selected; pain worshiping redneck zombies will be the order of the day.
Set up completed we move into what for most horror films would be the meat of the plot, the assault by evil forces against our protagonists as they one by one get picked off and killed in gruesome and imaginative ways. But really this is all still set up for what proves to be the best part of the film. Our virgin and our stoner character realise that they are in some kind of staged scenario and through a fluke manage to escape from it and make their way into the underground base that controls everything. Now for the first time the film isn’t parodying horror conventions but instead telling it’s own story of two young adults caught up in a conspiracy fighting for their lives and possibly the fate of the whole world.
Cabin in the Woods is usually described as a horror film but it isn’t one. Certainly the iconic elements of horror films are all there. Stereotypical dumb young adult characters, slashers, isolated cabins, lack of phone reception. Indeed in one of the film’s most inspired gags literally ALL of the iconic elements of horror are there as the two escapees find themselves in a room containing every monster the film makers can think of. This ranges from classics like vampires and werewolves, to versions of existing characters like pinhead to real life monsters like the ku klux klan. Even a unicorn! It’s an inspired joke and it really stands for what the film is saying as whole, that though the icons and monsters may change all horror films are essentially the same thing.
Because Cabin in the Woods is a film about horror films and not a horror film itself. It’s never once scary and it never really tries to be scary, even in the early scenes that seem more like a horror film. Instead its tone veers between pathos, drama and humour. It is basically a black comedy.
And as a comedy it’s brilliant. It has plenty of gags and great one liners. It was written by Joss Whedon and his familiar dialogue sizzles and zips out of every actor’s mouth, but it mostly relies on two main sources of humour.
The first is the incongruous contrast between the horror and murder being committed and the very normal office atmosphere of the control centre. This is most visible during the party scene. The controllers, thinking they’ve killed all our protagonists, open up some drinks and throw an office party. It’s the typical scene you might get after a successful project completion. Guys from different teams interact awkwardly, someone tries to hit on a colleague, the intern brown noses the manager. It’s all very normal boring office stuff. Meanwhile in the background on the monitors a girl is being beaten, presumably to death, by some kind of zombie.
The other is straight up parody of horror conventions. During the scenes in the middle of the film with the secret agency manipulating the kids we get lots of nods to the rules and conventions of horror, how certain characters act in certain (usually stupid) ways to advance the plot. In this way the film kind of resembles Scream but it is much more effective in pointing out the conventions and subverting them. My favourite example being the button one of the controllers presses that electrifies the knife our final girl is holding, causing her to drop it. The dropping of knives has to be one of the most annoying tropes in slasher films and it’s great to see it lampshaded here.
Cabin in the Woods is a very, very well observed parody of the horror genre and there are some deep references in here (there’s a reference The Faculty and another to Leprechaun of all things) but this is not an affectionate parody. In fact it has a surprisingly scathing view of horror from two guys who have worked so extensively in it.
Firstly it puts forward the view that all horror films are essentially the same stock tropes repeated ad nauseum with only the nature of the monster changed. Again the scene with the room full of monsters really hammers this point home but the sub text is made text many times as the controllers have to manipulate the characters to conform to stereotypes. In the climactic end scene Sigourney Weaver (in a largely pointless cameo) outright states words to the effect that they have to make the young adults into cultural archetypes. This is a little harsh on horror but it’s not a sentiment I necessarily disagree with. However I don’t think that repetition in the horror genre is a bug but a feature. Something I’ll discuss more in the companion piece.
Much more controversially though it asks the question why do we watch horror?
Normally our controllers are stand-ins for the artists that make horror films, the writers and directors, etc. People who just have a job to do but unfortunately have a job that requires becoming de-sensitized to the death and the gore that surrounds them. However, at times the controllers stand in as audience surrogates, watching our protagonists and getting a voyeuristic pleasure from it. This is most obvious in the scene where the control room fills with male crew waiting to see our blonde slut take her top off or again in the party scene where everyone cheers as a girl gets beaten to death. The film is obviously condemning this behaviour. Our sympathies have largely been with the final girl and we as the audience want her to live but our stand in audience wants to watch a gruesome death and reminds us that we enjoyed watching the other four kids die. Morally the film positions this as somewhat sick behaviour and tries to answer why on earth horror fans would want to see this stuff and why we as a culture would keep making it.
The answer they come up with is punishment, specifically punishment for being young. Again this is explicitly stated in Weaver’s thunderously clunky expository speech at the end but it’s also subtly indicated throughout the film. Horror films function as a proxy for virgin sacrifice, something cultures all over the world have practised. Be it spam in a cabin films, or Hunger Games or Battle Royale or burning witches or throwing virgins in the volcano; the ritual suffering of the young is something that is key to the human psyche.
This is a profound observation but it opens up another question that the film fails to answer. Why? Why do we need to see the suffering of the young? Is it jealousy; do we see them having a good time and want them to have the problems of adults? Is it some kind of symbolic proxy for how they have to suffer in some fashion to stop being children and become adults?
The film never really explains why the sacrifice is necessary. It does explain within the context of the film. The ritual sacrifice of these five cultural archetypes will pacify an ancient lovecraftian evil and stop it from destroying the world. However it doesn’t explain why this sacrifice is necessary on a metatextual level.
This is probably because the lovecraftian demon (dun dun dun) is us. In the final shot of the film the hand seen emerging is distinctly human, and earlier in the film the demon expressed pleasure at seeing one character die. As much as the controllers are audience stand-ins so too is the dark god demanding it see suffering and sacrifice in order to appease it. This speaks to an often suggested reason why people watch horror films, as a kind of release by proxy of violent desires inherent in the human psyche. That there is something about humans that demands we experience violence and by watching a horror film we can pacify that demand rather than enacting it in the real world.
Again that’s rather profound but still leaves a question unanswered. Why do Whedon and Goddard think we want to experience this violence?
The film doesn’t answer but instead moralises about this desire to view violence. Our two protagonists when presented with the facts, they need to die to save the world, opt not to sacrifice themselves. Instead they’re perfectly happy for the whole world to die whilst they sit there and smoke a spliff. Their reasoning being that human beings are terrible and we deserve to be destroyed so the world can start over.
If we take this at a meta-textual level the film seems to be saying that the existence of horror films proves that human beings on a basic level want to see violence done. We want the young to suffer. And in the absence of a reason given in the film for why this might be the case it seems to posit that this desire is an intrinsic facet of being human. and it will persist as long as human beings do.
That’s a surprisingly cynical view of horror films and human nature. It might be necessary to have them to sublimate a worse evil but the fact that they exist is evidence that the human beings that watch them are fundamentally evil.
Cabin in the Woods is a smart film and a very successful comedy but it has a bad case of multiple personality disorder that will really divide horror fans. On the one hand they’ll love the parody of the genre and recognising the tropes and references. On the other it is very harsh towards both the artistic merit of horror films and their morality and on a meta-textual level really makes a case that horror films are bad and just a symptom of how sick human beings are. That’s going to rub a lot of horror fans the wrong way because nobody likes to be judged or told that what they enjoy is wrong and Cabin in the Woods seems to be saying that.
On a side note I do want to briefly address the review of Cabin in the Woods by Gooberzilla over at The Greatest Movie Ever podcast. This is an excellent podcast by the way and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in film, particularly genre film. I don’t always share Gooberzilla’s taste in films myself but he is always articulate and logical in his arguments about why he doesn’t like a film I might personally love.
But in his review of Cabin in the Woods he makes a cardinal film criticism sin. He reviews what the film isn’t rather than what it is.
Gooberzilla posits a version of the film that starts with the future dead teenager characters and does not cut away to the controllers until much later in the film. In this version the set up would be played straight until they get to the cabin and the film would slowly reveal hints that what the characters are experiencing is more than it seems. They find the cameras, we in the audience notice the gas or a subtle voice whispering what a character should do and we start to suspect that this is some kind of set-up. Then the third act proceeds much as before with two of our protagonists escaping into the facility and discovering the conspiracy and the fact that they need to die to save the world.
His argument is basically that this would have worked as both a horror film and a comedy and the scenes where we don’t know what’s going on would have genuine tension to them and enigma.
Now I fully agree that this would be a great film and I would happily watch it, but that isn’t the film Cabin in the Woods is, nor is it the film it’s trying to be. Starting the film with the controllers was a very deliberate choice, not a failing and here’s why they did it. To deny the viewer what they want. The very fact that many voices have bemoaned the opening scene and how it ruins the tension and the mystery points out that the audience wants tension and mystery. But the filmmakers don’t want you to have it. This is a film that is a) about subverting conventions and b) has the core thesis that horror cinema is bad and human beings are bad for wanting to watch it. Therefore they’re going to set it up like a horror film and then deny you the pleasures of a horror film. That’s why the film isn’t scary, that’s why our protagonists neither die heroically nor find a way to beat the odds. Those would be satisfying endings. Instead our characters fail because they want to deny you the pleasures of a horror movie. Whatever you want to see this film thinks is bad for you and so denies it. They even make this idea literal with the Merman running gag. One of the controllers wants to see a merman, it’s a running gag throughout the film, and when he sees a Merman, it kills him. What you want is bad for you horror fans.
You may disagree (indeed, I do) but you can’t criticise the films structure when it works towards the films aims.
Gooberzilla’s other complaint I want to respond to is the big hand at the end saying he would have preferred something more lovecraftian like a tentacle. Again I’d argue there is a very good reason for the human hand, it’s because the great ancient one is a human being, or at least symbolic of human beings. The whole reason for the sacrifice in the context of the film is to appease this dark gods but meta-textually there are no dark gods only human beings. Human beings want to see violence and gore and human sacrifice and we can be appeased by what the controllers have created, a horror film, a scenario that conforms to our cultural needs and which prevents “the dark times before” i.e. the violent history of humanity prior to the outlet of violent fiction. Making it a tentacle would make it less obvious that the dark gods are viewer stand-ins.
There is also a companion post to this review that discusses some of my thought about why people enjoy horror films.