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<i>The Cabin in the Woods</i>: Once More With Spoilers

As we said in our initial review of The Cabin in the Woods, this Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard horror movie/genre critique is best experienced fresh, knowing as few details in advance as possible. But based on our experience, when you do see it you'll feel compelled to discuss it immediately, with spoilers and all. We know we did -- that's why we're running this separate article, which digs a little deeper into the movie's mysteries. One last warning: this post will reveal key plot points and surprises. Anyone who hasn't seen The Cabin in the Woods yet should stop right here, right now...

Let's start with a big picture overview before getting into the nitty-gritty: The Cabin in the Woods takes place on a version of Earth that's still literally populated by gods and monsters. The latter are imprisoned in Plexiglas boxes located within an enormous complex that's buried beneath the planet's surface. Below that sleep the ancient ones, mighty titans whose continued slumber demands a regular ritual sacrifice. Should the mortals dwelling above fail to satisfy their thirst for fresh blood, the gods will awaken and bring about the end of the world. But long gone are the days where mankind can just toss a few souls into a volcano as an act of appeasement. In contemporary times, more elaborate rituals have been concocted, which vary in form depending on the country and culture.

The particular scenario the movie depicts is a concoction specifically geared towards American tastes: Five nubile college kids head off into a cabin in the woods for a weekend of swimming, drinking and partying (sex and nudity aren't officially required, but are strongly encouraged), but instead find themselves fighting off some kind of horrible monster -- zombies, knife-wielding psychos, evil forest beasts, you name it. In other words, it's the same set-up that's fueled countless horror movies, from Evil Dead to Wrong Turn. (In a clever touch, Goddard and Whedon allow us glimpses of some of the other sacrificial scenarios that happen around the world, which all reflect local trends in horror movies. The one in Japan, for example, looks exactly like a classic bit of J-horror like Ringu or Ju-On: The Grudge.) This ritual is designed and overseen by a staff of hundreds back at the aforementioned underground bunker, who are allowed to observe and occasionally goose the proceedings, but never overtly influence the victims' decisions or reveal their presence. The current crop of sacrificial lambs are strapping jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth); sexy blonde Jules (Anna Hutchison); weed-addled geek Marty (Fran Kranz); generic nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams); and sweetheart Dana (Kristen Connolly). Meanwhile, our primary eyes on the ground within the complex belong to two working stiffs, Sitterson and Hadley -- played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford respectively -- and nervous scientist Lin, played by Whedon regular, Amy Acker. They may have designed this cabin and the environment surrounding it, but the kids are ultimately the architects of their own destruction -- even inadvertently choosing what form their killers are going to take -- and their deaths function as both a source of pleasure and deliverance for their unseen audience.

Right off the bat, this premise raises some provocative questions about the enduring popularity of the horror genre. Like those slumbering gods, do we moviegoers go back to these films year after year because we have an innate bloodlust that needs to be satiated? And, like the drones that oversee this elaborate operation, do we prefer to watch the same sacrificial scenario with the same types of personalities repeated again and again (with only minor variations, like inbred chainsaw-wielding maniacs in place of, say, a big bad wolf) because that familiarity is strangely comforting? Whedon and Goddard make these ideas concrete in the film's final moments, when a character known only as The Director (played by a famous face who we won't reveal, because the surprise of seeing her is just too good to give away, even here) approaches the two surviving victims -- Marty and Dana -- and informs them that they are standard-issue characters acting out a tale as old as time for spectators that crave their deaths. They may think they have free will, but there's always an entity more powerful than them that will attempt to pull their strings.

Whedon has explored these ideas of individual autonomy versus collective control throughout his career, most recently on his Fox series, Dollhouse, which was in the midst of airing its first season when shooting started on Cabin (that's right, The Cabin in the Woods has been sitting around since 2009, the victim of a bankrupt studio and repeated release date changes. That's why they're able to kill off Hemsworth, who has since gone on to find fame and fortune as the Mighty Thor, in the third reel). You can see the influence of Dollhouse all over this film, from the concept of an underground bunker operated by a shadowy corporation to the way Dana and the other victims have their personalities slightly altered to suit the scenario that's been created for them. (For example, the smart, savvy Jules reverts to the dumb blonde stereotype after using hair dye that Lin and her team have been laced with a chemical designed to slow her cognition.) Both the series and the movie also involve the puppets eventually rebelling against their masters, turning their own weapons against them. In Cabin, that involves Dana and Marty breaking into the bunker and freeing all of the nightmarish monsters housed there and unleashing them upon the trapped staff. The ensuing bloodbath is by far the movie's high point, a cavalcade of carnage committed by creatures ranging from werewolves and giant snakes to a merman and a girl with a gaping, fang-filled mouth for a face to hideous aliens and even a unicorn. And as a final joke, the duo willingly brings about the end of the world instead of sacrificing themselves for mankind. Not only do they deny the gods (and us, the audience) the satisfaction of seeing them perish... they choose to end our lives as punishment for demanding their deaths.

That a seemingly ordinary horror movie can inspire these kinds of thoughts is one of the great pleasures of The Cabin in the Woods and of Whedon's work in general. And yet, as alluded to in our other review, it's an open question as to whether Cabin would still qualify as great horror if the meta stuff were stripped away. Certainly, the lack of effective scares is an issue; apart from the blood-soaked climax, Cabin is rarely frightening or even particularly unsettling. It's clear that Whedon and Goddard have studied and understand the genre's elements, but they're unable to employ them as successfully as experienced horror hands do. The other problem -- and this is a big surprise for Whedon -- are the bland characters and performances at the film's center. Granted, the kinds of B, C and D-grade horror films that Cabin is riffing on have never been famous for their acting or dialogue, but that's often made up for the inventiveness and/or goriness of the various kills. Here though, most of the deaths (again, outside of the ones in the finale) are as generic as the characters' personalities. Although the "Well, of course they're generic -- they're archetypes!" defense works up to a point, one of Whedon's strengths as a writer is finding ways to turn the familiar on its head. And while he and Goddard pull that off with the overall structure of the movie, the five victims whose fates we're supposed to invest in remain standard-issue ciphers, which robs their final act of defiance of a certain amount of power. (For the record, Sitterson and Hadley fare better, both because they're played by experienced character actors and also due to the fact that they are clearly acting as surrogates for the movie's writers... which explains why they get all the best lines.)

Even with these flaws, Cabin in the Woods obviously remains a must-see for horror fans, budding film scholars and appreciators of cleverly plotted stories. What Goddard and Whedon have achieved here -- and it's not an insignificant accomplishment -- is crafting a surprise-laden feature where the surprises function as resonant ideas instead of momentary distractions. Regardless of how the movie fares as the box office this weekend, that fact ensures that those who do see it will be thinking and talking about it for years to come.

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