As a proud horror fan, I’ve been less than enthused at the prospect of a scary movie produced, co-written, and, for all intents and purposes, co-directed by Joss Whedon, whose disdain for the genre is well documented if perhaps not well informed. In 1997, the talented screenwriter reinvented Buffy the Vampire Slayer to subvert the sexist tendencies in monster flicks, not realising they’d shifted to strong female heroines fifteen years prior. A decade later, he chastised the makers of Captivity (2007) based on its trailer alone, not realizing the movie exposes the very misogyny of which he’d accused director Roland Joffé. If only he’d bothered to watch the damn thing…
At any rate, it comes as little surprise that The Cabin in the Woods functions less as a supernatural thriller than a satire of the slasher genre, mistaken for horror cinema as a whole. Consider the cold open: two office workers (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) have a casual water-cooler conversation about marriage and cabinet doors while preparing for a sinister experiment. The title then flashes before us with a thunderous roar as if we’ve just witnessed the most terrifying display of human depravity. According to the filmmakers, we have.
From this point, the movie follows two parallel threads. The main one centers on five slasher archetypes heading to the titular cabin in the woods: the good girl (Kristen Connolly), the bad girl (Anna Hutchison), the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the intellectual (Jesse Williams), and the pothead (Fran Kranz). Each proves reasonably sympathetic albeit a bit underdeveloped, which is, of course, the point. Despite themselves, our heroes end up partaking in various conventions of the genre, awakening a demonic force all the while questioning their actions in sporadic bursts of judgment: “I’m drawing a line in the sand here: no reading the Latin!”
Meanwhile, the aforementioned office workers manipulate every aspect of the cabin from a television control room, collapsing tunnels to keep the teenagers trapped, opening doors to spark their curiosity, and releasing pheromones to heighten the sexual atmosphere. It’s po-mo meta with a dash of preachy, but the white collar puppeteers’ glib comments as they bet on the kills and point out the clichés prove genuinely clever, not to mention hilarious. They comprise the highlight of The Cabin in the Woods and may well be worth the price of admission in and of themselves.
Whedon may have found the perfect co-writer in Drew Goddard, who is also credited as the film’s official director. Their dialogue has got all the delightful quirks we’ve come to expect from a Mutant Enemy production, but each character retains enough of an individual voice so as not to come off like mouthpieces for the creators… Well, most of the time anyway. There are instances when the puppeteers seem to address the audience directly, and the metaphor can get a bit heavy-handed, especially when their leader shows up calling herself the director.
We get it: horror flicks are cynical exercises in human cruelty, and all who enjoy them should be ashamed. I might have proven more receptive to this message if I felt Whedon and Goddard had any real grasp of the genre. It’s not enough to pastiche the likes of Friday the 13th (1980), The Evil Dead (1981), Hellraiser (1987), Ringu (1998), and The Strangers (2008). One has to acknowledge what these movies meant to convey (no, I don’t have a clue as to The Strangers’ creative ambitions). Besides, why bother with such obscure references when you aim to insult those who might catch them?
My main issue with the film’s thesis lies in its assumption that people who like scary movies root for the monster. If that were the case, we wouldn’t refer to the genre as “horror”. We’d call it “titillation followed by sick release” or “mega bloody happy fun time”. Fans identify with the survivors. That’s why Halloween: H20 (1998), which boasts the return of Laurie Strodes, remains the highest grossing sequel in the series. That’s why the Scream flicks keep changing the killer but always star Sydney, Dewey, and Gale. Incidentally, the latter franchise presents a more thoughtful dissection of the slasher, one that takes the time to understand its tropes before denouncing them.
Simply put, I think the filmmakers are wrong. Horror cinema doesn’t “punish the young”. It communicates their fortitude in a world full of danger and corruption. This is not to say I dislike The Cabin in the Woods. Sure, the satire turns out less than flattering, but it challenges the viewer in an engaging way, bursting with wit and imagination. More to the point, unlike some people, I believe in scary movies as a valid form of artistic expression. As such, if Whedon and Goddard want to use the medium to flip us horror fans the bird, hey, I can celebrate that too.