Should I have to tell you that there are gratuitous spoilers throughout this post? Hopefully not. One of the structural conceits of Cabin in the Woods is the fact that it explicitly telegraphs virtually every major plot complication in advance. The idea that modern horror narratives are an extension of the ancient ritual of human sacrifice? Right there in the opening credits. The idea that the high priests of culture are now bureaucratic drones who have used the corporate-industrial complex to attempt to micromanage our every desire? Right there after the opening credits. Lovecraftian gods as the Old Ones who must be appeased by said sacrifice? Implied in almost every scene featuring the staff of the mystery organization right up to the final “revelation.” Every horror movie you’ve ever seen has essentially “spoiled” Cabin in the Woods for you already, and that’s part of the point. You have willingly subjected yourself to a ritual whose details and variations are already familiar to you — and yet you are rewarded by the experience, else you would not voluntarily endure the same thing over and over and over. There’s a good reason for why you do, and this film explains it to you in the most deliciously literal-yet-metaphorical terms.
Christian viewers should be right at home with this conceit. It’s a slightly twisted version of what Peter Fraser calls the liturgical mode. That is to say, there are certain elements one finds throughout narratives in Western culture, because Western culture is so pervaded by tropes descended from our Judeo-Christian theological heritage. Above all, the story of Christ’s sacrifice is enshrined in our culture. The so-called “Christ figure” is ubiquitous, and there’s a centripetal force to the arc of his passion, death, and resurrection that informs countless stories. We find a similar mode at work here: five young people are chosen as sacrificial lambs to appease the Great Old Ones sleeping beneath the Earth’s surface. Via a mind-blowing process of subtle manipulations (could there be a parallel to prophecies and appellations to Providence?), they are led — willingly, though ignorantly — to the sacrificial altar (the titular cabin), where they will die so that the world may live. Each step of the process is codified and consecrated. Horror fans will recognize every trope, here recast as “sacred” stations of the postmodern cross. The twist is that, when the two most intrepid survivors of the original flock uncover the truth behind their tribulation, they choose not to sacrifice themselves for the good of humanity. Instead, they prefer to die — and take humanity along with them.
They ain’t no f#@&in’ Christ figures, I’ll tell ya what!
Despite the nihilism of the ending, it is extremely cathartic. Even with all the empathy that the film extends to its collegiate protagonists, it does rather illustrate the necessity of not having young people rule the world. As understandable as it is that they would screw us all because they were given an extremely raw deal (who wants to be the “Isaac” anyway?), their decision isn’t presented as right or correct. It’s borne more of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. Taking Sartre very literally, when they choose, they really do choose for all humankind. Existentially, it’s a terrifying prospect, but rhetorically, the film itself underscores just how important it is that these rituals take place. (It also problematizes the whole “necessariness” of rituals, but not to the extent that it fully subverts it; the film is clearly traditional in its loyalties.) Within the world of the film, everything is screwed. As a cinema-text in the real world, Cabin in the Woods aspires to be the ultimate affirmation of cathartic rituals — especially those that involve confronting the fears and practices that we collectively find to be the most abhorrent.
Of course, in doing so, Cabin undercuts some of the more traditional frights, telegraphed and rote as they are. The more gut-wrenching aspects (at least, for me) were those featuring the puppet masters at work. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford flipping switches, pulling levers, and pressing buttons to create no-win variables for the lambs were vertiginously terrifying in their impersonality, and in the utter control the men exercised over their sacrificial pawns. The brief moment in which Amy Acker’s character brags about her chem department lacing a character’s hair dye with aphrodisiacs — to guarantee that she’ll behave with appropriate promiscuity and lasciviousness for the ritual — was revolting. In what I’m sure will be one of the most discussed and celebrated scenes, the crew of the puppeteer organization throws a premature fete for a successful ritual, rocking out to REO Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes” while the heroine is brutalized by a zombie redneck on the monitors in the background. While humorous exchanges of office culture dialogue are bantered in the foreground, the heroine is punched, choked, and thrown like a test dummy around a dock, physically incapable of defending herself against her inhuman assailant, and having no hope of rescue. The squeamish blend of comedy and horror is vintage stuff for director Drew Goddard and his cowriter Joss Whedon, both of whom, at their best (as they are here), are expert genre deconstructionists.
Reconstructing the genre in inventive, new ways is what they made their reputations doing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV program, and Cabin in the Woods is a triumphant extension of that legacy. The characters may be stock, but they’re given humanizing depth; the situation is pure cornmeal, but it’s deployed with wit and insight. Over at Confused Gender, Alex offers a great look at the film’s intelligent politics, particularly in parsing how its feminism diverges from what he calls the “desperation” of other contemporary genre films with feminist aspirations. What’s most important, though, is how the film is structured to harness the power inherent in the genre, and make us aware of how it’s doing so. The film doesn’t overburden the audience with avant-garde aesthetics and theory (in fact, I really appreciated the workmanlike direction); it’s clever enough to be smarter than most mainstream entertainment, but it’s not so dense with art house ambition that it disappears into its own navel. No, I walked out of Cabin in the Woods feeling very grateful to be alive, because the message is stark, cathartic, and clear: the only thing worse than being a character trapped in a horror movie is not having horror movies at all. ☕
For further consideration, check out these reviews; they all informed my own consideration of the film:
Roger Ebert – “This is essentially an attempt to codify free will. Do horror characters make choices because of the requirements of the genre, or because of their own decisions? And since they’re entirely the instruments of their creators, to what degree can the filmmakers exercise free will? This is fairly bold stuff, and it grows wilder as the film moves along.”
Reverse Shot – “Cabin in the Woods is easily the smartest and most knowing American horror film of the past several years. But it’s guilty of an awful lot of cake-eating—that breast shot, a decapitated head getting tossed like a basketball, Chris Hemsworth’s cliff jump. Metageneric self-referentiality aside, the movie at times indulges the very impulses it’s ostensibly critiquing. That may be the point, to some extent, and I am certainly not questioning either Whedon’s or Goddard’s integrity or intentions. The devil here is in the execution.”
The Film Doctor – “The dated, cheesy quality of [“Roll with the Changes”] accentuates their middle-aged lack of taste. Dana’s torment is not enough by itself–they need music! We see various crew members using their opportunity to mingle and flirt as they sip drinks. Dana’s horror becomes decorative movement on the monitors much like sports on the flat screen TVs of a sports bar. Whedon and Goddard oblige us to consider how much we vicariously share in the lab technicians’ lack of emotion. ”
Jeffrey Overstreet – “Dare I suggest that Cabin in the Woods finds our culture’s chosen storytellers revealing a profound sense of oncoming doom, of judgment for our indulgence and our recklessness, even as they seem to admit a kinship with the audience that clamors for scenes of big-screen slaughter? Uh-huh, I dare that. 2011 and 2012 are unnervingly crowded with movies about human beings struggling to cope with inevitable annihilation. The Cabin in the Woods is, in the end, a lot like Melancholia in its view of humanity and what it deserves… just funnier.”
Christ and Pop Culture – “There are still plenty of wince-worthy moments, even if they weren’t particularly scary, though the film’s primary function is to operate on the level of smirk. Toward that end, it’s effective because the more pointed laughs are at the expense of the voyeur-technicians, who, it should be noted, have become discomfortingly callous toward the whole affair. In this way, the film is sympathetic toward those who would still feel a sinking feeling at the destruction of the teenagers, while it is calculated in its mockery of those who would be entertained by, or indifferent to, the massacre.”