Friday, April 20, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

If you've been following this blog for any amount of time you've probably noticed that I don't have much use for spoiler warnings, or for the primacy that spoilers have gained in the discourse about popular culture.  The conversations I want to have, the ones that seem interesting and worth having, are precisely the ones that don't allow for the self-censorship of spoiler mania, and the truth is that I don't believe that a truly worthwhile work is one that can be "spoiled" simply by knowing what happens next.  So when I say that Drew Goddard's horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods (written by Goddard and Joss Whedon), is the sort of film that rewards unspoiled viewing, that probably seems entirely different to viewers who know its secrets, and that may, in fact, only be worth watching if you're ignorant of its central twist, I'm not being entirely complimentary.  Cabin is a funny, clever, well-made film, extremely effective in its scary scenes and an enjoyable viewing experience all around, but it is also rather hollow.  That's a direct result of binding the film's affect so inextricably with its central twist--a choice that is disappointing not only because of what it makes of the film, but because it leaves unexplored all of that twist's more intriguing implications.

Before I get any further I should probably acknowledge that my use of the word "twist" here is somewhat questionable.  Inasmuch as The Cabin in the Woods has a twist, it is not only announced in the film's trailers, but in its opening minutes.  Before we're even introduced to our cabal of doomed young people as they blithely prepare for their fateful trip to the titular cabin--bubbly pre-med student Jules (Anna Hutchinson), her earnest boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), her best friend Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt's friend Holden (Jesse Williams), who has been invited as a fix-up for Dana, and pothead clown Marty (Fran Kranz)--we meet the people who are planning their cliché-ridden doom, Hadley (Bradley Whitford), Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), and Lin (Amy Acker), who from a hi-tech underground facility are monitoring every centimeter of the cabin and its grounds, the better to usher the campers to their deaths.  Even the purpose of that carefully orchestrated massacre has already been made clear in the film's opening credits, which depict scenes of human sacrifice.  Ten minutes into the film's run, then, the only question that remains--the one whose answer I am calling the film's twist--is really more of a missing puzzle piece: who are these kids being sacrificed to, and why?  Nevertheless, once you know the answer to that question, The Cabin in the Woods becomes a completely different story, and to watch the film knowing that it is that story would, I think, be a supremely unsatisfying experience, because just where you'd expect that story to start is where The Cabin in the Woods chooses to stop.

The film instead puts its eggs in the metafiction basket, revealing that the tropes of American horror films (and of those from other countries, as sites in places like Sweden, Japan, or Spain, where other scenarios are being run, are mentioned) are integral components of the sacrifice ritual.  These tropes are painstakingly recreated by the behind the scenes crew, who tamper not only with the campers' circumstances but with their body chemistry.  Jules has been designated the scenario's bimbo, so Lin has introduced a substance that impairs cognitive function into the dye with which she's recently colored her hair blonde.  Like most of Cabin in the Wood's jokes, however, the film hammers this one in--"dumb blonde, huh?" Hadley says admiringly.  Other jokes, such as Marty's genre-savviness and the frustrations it causes Hadley and Sitterson, or a scene in which Mordecai, the creepy hillbilly who menaces the campers on their way to the cabin, calls the control room to deliver overheated, foreboding oratory only to complain because he's been placed on speakerphone, are initially quite funny but go on for too long, while others take forever to build up--throughout the film the bunker crew refer to Dana as The Virgin even though we know she's had an affair with one of her professors--only to deliver a faint payoff--"We work with what we're given" is Sigourney Weaver's senior director's response to Dana's wordless query at her designation.  In the aggregate, The Cabin in the Woods is a funny film, but its individual jokes are strained, trying too hard to make up for the absence of truly excellent wit.  Though a few come close (the speakerphone scene is my favorite) there isn't a single gag that truly lingers and elicits laughter on the way out of the movie theater.

Even more frustrating is the way the film points out the shallowness of horror tropes, but refuses to replace them with anything deeper.  The five campers have been designated with roles that both correspond to character types found in horror films and are, in the film's universe, components of the ritual.  The more we see of the kids, however, the less those roles seem to suit them.  Dana and Jules have been dubbed, respectively, the Virgin and the Whore, but so far as we can tell both girls are sexually active and neither is very promiscuous--they could just as easily have been given each other's parts.  By the same token, Curt is the Athlete and Holden is the Scholar, even though Curt, as well as being an athelete, is a sociology major on a full academic scholarship, and Holden, as well as being a scholar, is the new star of the football team.  This, however, is as far as the film's characterization goes--it establishes that its characters are not the reductive stereotypes to which they've been assigned, but it tells us nothing about who they are, and doesn't even attempt to make actual people out of them.  It even seems pleased to make use of those stereotypes when they suit its purposes--Marty fits his role, the Fool, to a T, both in the sense that he is a buffoon and in the sense that he sees more than the others, noticing the joints and seams in the scenario and finding his way backstage.

"She's got so much heart," Hadley says of Dana as he watches her struggle for her life against the monsters he's unleashed on her, explaining why, despite the jaded cynicism he's evinced towards his awful job since the beginning of the film, he finds himself rooting for her.  This, however, feels like the film telling us how we should feel rather than an accurate description of Dana, who though suitably appealing does little to set herself apart from the million Final Girls who have come before her.  Inasmuch as she has heart, it's because her role--her role in The Cabin in the Woods, that is, not the scenario-within-the-film--requires her to.  The film may very well be commenting on this fact--Hadley's moment of sentiment is interrupted and replaced by his typical cynicism when his colleagues arrive with alcohol to celebrate the sacrifice's success--but that still leaves us with a protagonist who can't manage to escape or transcend her type despite being in a story that is all about pointing out that that type exists.

The problem, I think, is that Dana shouldn't be the protagonist, and The Cabin in the Woods comes close to reaching this conclusion itself before shaking it off and settling into a story that, for all its quirks, runs along very familiar grooves.  In the first half of the film, we can't help but root for the campers and feel anger towards the bunker crew.  Knowing that someone within the story--someone not monstrous but ordinary and familiar--is orchestrating the kids' gruesome deaths gives those deaths an extra, fresh layer of horror that cuts through the hoariness of the story, and makes the backstage characters' jadedness, and even glee, at their actions seem terribly cruel.  Around the time that Dana and Marty find their way into the bunker, however, we get our missing puzzle piece and learn the reason that they and their friends are being sacrificed.  Which turns out to be the reason for every human sacrifice--to appease the gods and prevent the end of the world.  All over the world facilities like the one we've been watching have been reenacting rituals from their cultures, trying to stave off the Old Ones' awakening, but this year all but the American scenario have failed--the fate of the world depends on Marty and Dana dying (actually just Marty, since as the Virgin Dana may survive so long as she suffers).

Since we're constantly ahead of the campers in our understanding of their story--first knowing that they are in a horror story scenario, then realizing the reason for that scenario before they do--it's hard not to feel unreasonably angry at Marty and Dana's determination to survive, and at the things they do to achieve that end.  When Dana releases all of the nightmare creatures stored in the bunker (a component of the ritual is that each group of campers chooses, through its actions, which monster will hunt them, and there is a wide selection to choose from) and sics them on the staff, the result is one of the film's most bloody, and weirdly exhilarating, sequences, as wave after wave of increasingly bizarre monsters are unleashed to deal imaginative deaths to office workers, maintenance personnel, and HR bigwigs.  But knowing what we do, it's also an almost villainous act--Dana's actions not only lead to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unnecessary deaths, they also hasten the end of the world.

There is, yet again, a sense that The Cabin in the Woods is aware of this, and that if only the film had leaned a little bit further into this reading the result might have a much more interesting story.  After all, it's almost possible to read the film as Hadley, Sitterson, and Lin's story, a horror narrative of a different but no less compelling type.  The speakerphone scene is played for laughs, but Mordecai's dire warnings of looming disaster are aimed as much at his colleagues as they are at the campers, and they go unheeded.  The backstage plot could have been a horror story about hubris, about the arrogance of people whose power over the circumstances of other people's lives has blinded them to their own vulnerability and lack of control.  In broad strokes, this is what happens, but the final act of the film is too brisk, too preoccupied with inventive slaughter, and still too invested in Dana and Marty as protagonists while relegating Hadley, Sitterson, and Lin to comic relief (and then canon fodder) to work as their story.  Though interesting hints are raised that something more is going on behind the scenes--several near-misses before the true disaster are blamed on orders from upstairs, and someone appears to be sabotaging at least the American scenario and possibly the others as well--and though a few lines towards the end of the film, and Marty and Dana's uncaring nihilism when the purpose of the sacrifice required of them finally sinks in, suggest a theme of inter-generational strife, neither of these ideas are developed.  If The Cabin in the Woods is intended as a story in which the scenario operators are the protagonists and Marty and Dana are the villains, it is a rather shapeless one.  And more's the pity, as far as I'm concerned.

There is, quite obviously, a very large component here of blaming The Cabin in the Woods for not being the film I wanted it to be.  Goddard and Whedon set out to make a metafictional horror comedy that comments on the genre's tropes by employing them, and in this they succeeded.  (It should also be said that I might have been more appreciative of this success as its own accomplishment if I were a bigger fan of horror films.)  Much as I try to stop myself from chiding them for being short on ambition, though, I can't help but dwell on how much potential lay in their premise--a secret organization dedicated to defending the earth from ancient, evil gods with a menagerie of magical nightmare creatures at their disposal, who lure a bunch of kids to a secluded location to become part of their sacrifice ritual only for the kids to turn the tables, and the aforementioned menagerie of monsters, on them.  Once you know The Cabin in the Woods's twist it's impossible not to think of the film like this, and to have used this rich vein of story for little more than a metafictional gag seems like a criminal waste.  I wanted more time in the facility, more interactions between the campers and the bunker crew, more information about the organization running this show, more questioning of Marty and Dana's choices.  (Of course, maybe I'm only saying this because "underground facility that is also a wacky, surreal workplace and has become overrun by horrors while a menacing female voice booms on the PA" puts me in mind of Portal, which does a better job of blending humor and menace than The Cabin in the Woods and even feels like a more compelling story.)  The Cabin in the Woods is a funny, clever film, but it isn't nearly funny enough, or nearly clever enough, to make up for the loss of that story.

30 comments:

Jack Rodgers said...

To me, the most interesting thing about The Cabin in the Woods is that the ending fits into a recurring pattern of most of Whedon’s work: it argues that all large-scale institutions are evil. Whedon keeps writing stories about people who work for or ally themselves with a larger institution that is at first portrayed as morally ambiguous or even benevolent (the Initiative, Wolfram and Hart, the Dollhouse), and who briefly believe they can use the resources of the institution to do good, only to eventually realize that the organization is hopelessly corrupt and must be destroyed. That’s also true of Firefly’s the Alliance (which goes from being an analogue to the Union side of the American Civil War in the original pilot to a shadow government willing to experiment on whole planets and responsible for accidental mass murder in Serenity) and the Watcher’s Council (a bunch of stuffy, behind-the-times old white guys who only offer to help save the world if they get to call all the shots). In Whedon’s worldview, pledging your loyalty to any organization larger than a circle of friends is always a moral failing, and on some level, I feel like Cabin’s ending is arguing against killing Marty for no other reason than because the bureaucracy wants it to happen.

Granted, it’s possible to interpret the ending that Dana and Marty are making the wrong choices (Devin Faraci at Badass Digest has argued that their behavior represents how self-awareness destroys the visceral impact of horror films), but I genuinely think Whedon believes his characters are doing the right thing. As he told Ain’t Cool News in an interview: “… that sort of dehumanizing people is what we were reacting to and the movie has a very sort of humanistic message in the sense of ‘I will stand by my friend.’ That’s how humanity is supposed to work and if it doesn’t work that way, then what else have we got?”

I think this ties into something you mentioned in your review of Serenity when you said it’s not clear that Whedon understands that a corrupt government needs to be replaced with a better government, rather than some vaguely defined libertarian fantasy of law and order being upheld by a few exceptional men. He seems unable to accept that institutions are actually designed to perform necessary functions and that we can’t simply destroy them and hope for the best if they begin to act contrary to the public good. The fact that he can’t see this even in a situation where the bureaucracy is working to prevent the apocalypse is evidence that Whedon, while often a great writer, isn’t much of a deep thinker on politics.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Jack:

You've touched on something that I found myself wishing, about five seconds after pressing "post," that I'd written about in this review, which is that one of the reasons I would have liked the film's emphasis to be different and that I keep rewriting it in my head is that just about everything Whedon has been saying about it and his intentions with it makes no sense. The idea of the backstage as faceless institution in opposition to the kids' individuality is a case in point. Not just because, as you say, the bureaucracy in this story is working to stave off the apocalypse (a review I read this morning argues that this is one of the film's key missteps - if the ritual were empty, a tradition being followed without concrete reasons, or if there were some question about whether the old gods still exist, it would be easier to question the bunker crew's decisions), but because Hadly, Sitterson, and Lin are the only characters in the film with unique, non-predictable personalities. They feel like real people as opposed to the kids' broad types - which are only complicated when they decide that their own, brief lives are worth more than the continued existence of the entire human race.

Another statement by Whedon that I find utterly baffling - and that inclines me to discount The Cabin in the Woods's metafictional content - is his description of Hadley and Sitterson as stand-ins for Goddard and himself. It feels, as you point out, like a moment of Whedon's preoccupations - that same mingled guilt at what he is "making" actors and characters do and experience that drove Dollhouse - overwhelming his common sense. Far from being writers, Hadley and Sitterson are technicians, recreating a scenario according to predefined parameters without displaying even an ounce of creativity (even the choice of monster is out of their control) - because to do otherwise would bring down upon them the wrath of their "audience." It's hard to say who comes out worse from this metaphor, Whedon or his fans, but its flaws render it toothless as an indictment of the horror genre.

Sam said...

My most substantial complaint about 'Cabin in the Woods' is that if a film is critiquing the way horror filmmakers give their characters signifiers so their audience can absolve themselves of the qualms preventing them from enjoying their grisly deaths, you probably shouldn't give your characters signifiers so your audience can absolve themselves of the qualms preventing them from enjoying their grisly deaths. Bradley Whitford's character, for example, is slaughtered and it's played as a gag powered by the irony of the accusation that as a victimiser he wanted to see his victims killed in a certain way and now he's being killed in that same way, ha ha. The film isn't against the structures, as structures, that allow us to revel in violence; it's against the structures that allow us to revel in violence against certain people. So, yeah, when Whedon argues that it's a film about the how people aren't expendable it's hard to take seriously, what with the impaling-by-unicorn.

Josh K-sky said...

I think you're right to say that the film would have been stronger by going deeper into Hadley and Sitterson's horror movie. I've been enjoying thinking of the ending as a trolley problem -- the exercises in ethical thought that ask whether you should push a fat man onto a trolley track if doing so will kill him but prevent the trolley from killing four others. (Instinctively, most respondents will allow the man to fall, but most will refuse to push him. Also, it's a bit off that it's a fat man. Sorry.)

Cabin offers a radically deontological response -- even if the whole world would be saved, you don't push a man off a trolley. But I think you're right -- that's a movie you can tease out, but not one that's given a lot of time on the screen.

Edward Limerick said...

I don't know why reviewers keep claiming that this movie needs extra protection against spoilers. The premise to the film has been given away in all the advertising and trailers and the film itself is not concerned about keeping the nature of the cabin's reality a secret. The movie's only twist, which I think is a decent one, is that the seemingly cruel and callous technicians managing the scenario are actually the good guy and Dana and Marty, by fighting so effectively for their own preservation, are the villains. The morally correct decision at the end was for Dana to kill Marty and complete the ritual and prevent the world from being destroyed. Any action, no matter how otherwise reprehensible, would be excusable if it prevented such an outcome.

The problem, as I see it, is that Whedon has a strong nihilist streak. This admittedly is based only on a limited reading for his work (Buffy, Serenity, and now Cabin in the Woods). He appears to view the universe as unceasingly hostile to humanity with no redeeming value within it to justify its continued existence. Humans don't appear to be any better. The administrators in this film are portrayed as corrupt in spite of the fact that they are attempting to save the world. I'm not sure how the came to this conclusion. As a friend remarked: "What about those Japanese schoolgirls who defeated the evil ghost through the power of friendship? Don't they prove that there is something in us worth preserving?" Human sacrifice is an abhorrent act but I've noticed that humans are capable of thinking up fictious scenarios in which they are justifiable. Whedon seems to have stumbled onto the one scenario in which it would be morally excusable to murder five people but hasn't realized it.

Unknown said...

The ones who walk away from Omelas

Kit said...

The ones who walk away from Omelas explicitly do so without stopping the sacrifice, though. They don't even stay and lobby peacefully for the end of the sacrifice system.

Le Guin offers no hint of what they would do, or ought to do, if they were the people who had to decide whether or not to sacrifice the child and save or destroy the city for everyone else. The choice to walk away is a choice they make for themselves only. (And also they're not walking into certain death-by-Cthulhu, they're just walking out of paradise.)

Anonymous said...

I don't think you guys understand the point behind this movie. The world the film takes place in is figurative for the horror movie industry. The Gods (which were called the Audience at one point) are US... the REAL audience. The rituals each country is performing is symbolic of the actual movies each country is making. That's why they made a reference to how US was doing well until '98.... which is when, in real life, Japan started making good horror movies and became much more popular in the horror movie industry. The movie pointed out how every one of our horror films follows along the same cliche formula every time. No one has any originality. The movie pointed this out in SEVERAL instances... one of which being when Whitford asks why there's never a unique monster like a Merman... it's always the same, cliche zombies. This movie, in fact, follows along the same cliche horror movie formula, UNTIL, the formula fails when the Pothead doesn't die. Then the movie takes a complete twist because it doesn't go as planned.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

No, I think we all understand what Whedon and Goddard are saying. I Just don't think any of us are convinced by it - I know I'm not. As I say in my comment above, for Whedon to position himself and Goddard as technicians helpless to alter their story's script because the audience are evil, all-powerful gods who will destroy the world if they don't get exactly what they want is pretty insulting, and not a little bit whiney. Especially coming from Whedon, whose career was launched when he bucked the conventions of the horror genre, which won him a devoted audience.

Jack Rodgers said...

Aside from my reservations about the ending, I actually think most of our issues with The Cabin in the Woods stem from a simple flaw that it took me a while to put my finger on: the film’s relatively short runtime means that the second act is severely compressed. Once the Bruckners are resurrected, they pick off everybody but Dana and Marty very quickly, almost like Goddard and Whedon were so buzzed about the finale they had cooked up that they couldn’t wait to get to it. It would have made a lot more sense if this section of the movie were longer – what if the vacationers had acted in ways that were fundamentally different from how a character in a horror movie behaves, and the downstairs staff were forced to respond by making actual creative decisions on the fly that deviated from their original plans? Maybe someone decides to leave early and they have to figure out how to make him or her stay without causing a disturbance big enough to rattle the others. Maybe there’s a debate on what’s the best way to make sure the Whore is killed first. The closest the actual movie gets to this are Curt being gassed so he suggests splitting up (which feels like lame writing – if it’s that easy to manipulate the subjects, why not do that immediately?) and the campers being locked in their rooms so they can be picked off individually. If only this had been expanded into a battle of wits between the two groups, it would have provided some additional character development and done a better job of exploring the central hook of the film.

(Of course, that 95-minute run time is something of a double-edged sword: while parts of the movie aren’t as well-developed as they could have been, it also means The Cabin in the Woods is a brisk entertainment that I have no reservations about recommending to friends.)

ide-cyan said...

Jack: The issue you're getting at isn't due to the film's short running time, but to its very poor dramatisation. The movie's central conflict is between the college kids and the puppeteers, but while this is spelled out early on for the audience, the former remain unaware of the latter until around the elevator sequence, and have therefore nearly no opportunity to show agency in any way that will influence the plot (particularly since the puppeteers have been robbing them of their free will), while the puppeteers' actions remain routine, at a remove, and devoid of meaningful decision-making. When Dana and Marty meet the director and are finally told the stakes of the conflict, their world-ending choice can only seem arbitrary because nothing in the preceeding story, despite all of the violence and mayhem that has taken up screentime, has provided a relevent build-up to it. (Dana's protracted fight for survival at the lake is played as a background event joke, while Marty's is simply offscreen; and Sitterson, Hadley, Lin & co. have only faced minor technical problems, but no personal conflicts.) The movie essentially ends where the second act *begins*, without character development on either side of the main conflict.

The scene where Holden discovers the one-way mirror and faces (then quickly resolves) an internal dilemma about it holds more dramatic tension than the entire rest of the film's running time, because it's the only point where a character's choices have consequences that affect character development and group dynamics.

Dan Hemmens said...

@Abigail

I agree almost entirely with your analysis here, although I came to almost the opposite conclusion about the ending, in that I didn't think it ended when it should have started, rather I think it ended about twenty minutes *after* it should have stopped. If it had ended with the wrap party it would have been genuinely chilling, because you would be at once glad that the disaster had been averted but simultaneously aware that Dana was about to be killed by a zombie and (even more uncomfortably) aware that you didn't entirely *care*.

@Jack Rogers

Whedon's kneejerk anti-authoritarianism is extremely tiresome. It's like he's understood that some systems are unjust but hasn't worked out why that is a bad thing. As you observe, it's almost like he thinks that the reason it's wrong for the Directors to sacrifice innocent co-eds to ancient monsters is that they're doing it while wearing suits.

That interview you cite is particularly offputting. Looking at the situation from the opposite perspective, it seems like Whedon is saying that an essential quality of Humanity is the inability to sympathise with people we don't know.

@Anonymous

As Abigail has already pointed out, we do get the "metaphor for the industry" interpretation, it's just that, for me at least, that metaphor is mean-spirited and rather childish. Particularly since most of the tropes that Whedon is parodying are tropes that haven't been taken seriously in the industry for *literally decades*. As a genre deconstruction, /The Cabin in the Woods/ says absolutely nothing that /Scream/ didn't say better, less smugly, and *more than fifteen years ago*.

What I found particularly stupid about the genre-deconstruction elements of the film was that it was *based* on this idea that the horror industry is stuck in this tired formula, rehashing worn-out tropes with no thought or creativity, but it was also absolutely *packed* with references to modern horror movies that *completely disprove* this assertion (from /It/ to /Hellraiser/ to /The Strangers/).

Dan said...

This sounds like the kind of the plot where the finger is on the scales so heavily from the start (to sustain the "twist" unambiguously) that it removes any room for meaningful dilemmas. "...or EVERYBODY DIES!" is just another horror cliche after all, and the inflation of applying it to the whole world doesn't help.

Dan Hemmens said...

This sounds like the kind of the plot where the finger is on the scales so heavily from the start (to sustain the "twist" unambiguously) that it removes any room for meaningful dilemmas.

I'd agree, but bizarrely Whedon seems to think that "everybody in the whole world dies" actually *is* a better outcome than "girl doesn't stand by her friend."

Ted said...

You acknowledge the component of blaming Cabin in the Woods for not being the film you want it to be, but I think that doesn't quite go far enough. To some extent, it feels like you're blaming it for being a 90-minute film instead of a season of television.

Over the last decade and a half, television has raised our expectations for in-depth storytelling in the visual medium -- Whedon was partly responsible for that with BtVS, I think -- so much so that it's easy forget how little room films have to work with. There is certainly plenty of unexplored potential in Cabin in the Wood's premise, but would it be possible to make use of it all in 90 minutes? You say that the movie ends just where the story ought to start, but can you actually envision a movie that satisfyingly covers that much ground within its first fifteen minutes? I'm having difficulty seeing it.

I can, however, easily envision the first few episodes of a television series covering the same ground as Cabin in the Woods does. Such a series might ultimately be as much richer and deeper than the film as the BtVS series was compared to its film progenitor. Obviously there's no guarantee that it would satisfyingly address all the issues you raise, but it would at least have the room to try. Given the constraints of the movie format, I think Cabin in the Woods did a good job.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ted:

I don't think running time is as much of an impediment as you suggest here. I agree with ide-cyan that there's a slackness to most of the film's events rooted in our knowing more than the characters and the fact that so little work is done to develop them beyond their types. As she says and as I suggest in this review, getting rid of the extraneous campers and Dana and Marty's discovery of the facility should have been the business of the film's first act, and if Whedon's purpose with the film had been something other than the metafictional gags and finger-wagging that take up so much of its time I don't doubt that he could have done so easily and satisfyingly.

Anonymous said...

Why wouldn't the monsters kill off, or at lest attack,eachother? Also, did they always exsist and this "Company" simply captured them, or did they create them?

Benjamin said...

I’d like to defend the film on a few points. I think it’s important to recognize that this isn’t just a deconstruction of the horror genre, but also a condemnation of its values. I agree that the characters are a bit underdeveloped. We get a few glimpses of their respective personalities at the start, but these disappear as the film progresses. But this is partially the point. The scenario that they are forced into twists them into clichés (although I’ll agree that the use of chemical coercion for this purpose is a bit of a cheat).
Another thing I liked about the film, that hasn’t been mentioned yet, was that it wasn’t just that sacrifice was needed, but that the sacrificial victims had to be blamed for their own sacrifice. This was a big part of the outrage; that these people be callously sacrificed to maintain the status quo, while being blamed for their own suffering. I found this to be a very powerful metaphor. The victims of society are not only destroyed, but blamed and made to feel responsible for their own destruction.
From this perspective, I think the ending was a bit of a misstep. By having Dana and Marty realize the situation and choose not to play along, they in fact become responsible for the end of the world. This, for me, undermined the theme of manufactured blame, and seems like a bit of a distraction from what I thought was a much more powerful message about victimization.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure that The Cabin in the Woods being a condemnation of the horror genre's values is as much a point in its favor as you suggest, Benjamin. For one thing, Whedon's take on horror is old fashioned to the point of irrelevance. As many critics more familiar with horror than I am have pointed out, most of the tropes he comments on were old fashioned and falling out of use when Scream came out. More importantly, and as has been noted in this comment thread, there's something offputtingly smug and self-righteous about the film's condemnation of its genre, which blames the audience, and the genre as a whole, but somehow manages to absolve Whedon and Goddard of any responsibility for their choices. As I say above, Hadley and Sitterson aren't making any decisions about the scenario's plot, which allows Whedon and Goddard to stand in judgment of that story without taking responsibility for the fact of having written it.

There's an interesting discussion in the comments to Ferretbrain's podcast on the film about the way Whedon manipulates the notion of complicity so that the audience is rendered complicit in the film's events but he isn't. The specific topic is Jules and the way she is sexualized and then punished for being sexual, but I think that holds for the whole of the film as well.

lavanyasix said...

I can't help but dwell on how much potential lay in their premise--a secret organization dedicated to defending the earth from ancient, evil gods with a menagerie of magical nightmare creatures at their disposal, who lure a bunch of kids to a secluded location to become part of their sacrifice ritual...

In this respect, the organization in 'Cabin' is reminiscent of the SCP Foundation, a collaborative wiki horror project. It was really weird for me to see something akin to the SCP on the big screen, because I hadn't gone in knowing anything about the movie, and never expected to see a horror movie with even a light take on the SCP's flavor.

http://www.scp-wiki.net/

Anonymous said...

What I enjoy most about the Cabin in the Woods is that it has you and others talking in this manner, deconstructing on more levels than just the regular genre horror flicks do. It may not score well in your hearts, but I feel that it probably touched off more debate than most. If any of you or the readers of this are writers, screen writers or such, hopefully you construct a work that accomplishes what you feel fails or falters here, since you most likely won't want to create a similar work lesser than the critiques.

Neuron Fizz said...

Are you certain that Whedon's conclusion is wrong?

What if the certain doom of the entire human race actually is preferable to one girl betraying her friend?

Whedon is simply saying that the ends don't justify the means.

Maybe morality isn't a numbers game. Maybe the equation should be: betrayal is not automatically better than death -- any number of deaths. When you remove the massive headcount of the movie's end-of-the-world option, the question reduces to something simpler.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Are you certain that Whedon's conclusion is wrong?

Yes.

What if the certain doom of the entire human race actually is preferable to one girl betraying her friend?

It isn't.

I get that this feels like a Deep Philosophical Question, but it really isn't. To even ask this question, in fact, suggests a shocking failure of the imagination when trying to grasp what "the certain doom of the entire human race" really means. It's Hollywood's valorization of the individual taken to utterly perverse extremes.

Han Solo said...

Honestly, I liked the entire movie until the end. The movie was great with the concept of saying that all horror movies are supposed to be offerings to the gods. The problem is the ending was selfish. People say that this is a morality issue, but, it isn't. A morality issue is the classic would you kill one person to stop all diseases in the world? That one you can go either way about. In Cabin in the Woods the choice is take one life and save every life or protect one life and everyone dies. The issue is that it does not make sense. Whether Dana chooses to kill him or not he dies either way. Either by her hand or by the gods. So can anyone tell me that they would actually let one man live so that moments later you die, he dies and the world dies. This would be the of equivalent not killing a man who is about to die of an illness, even though killing him would save your child. Therefore it makes absolutely no sense for Dana not to kill Marty for self preservation and it makes even less sense for Marty not to kill himself as self sacrifice to save Dana.

Dragonchild said...

Saw the movie for the first time last week. Actually, I was convinced halfway through the movie that Marty was the Virgin, and Dana was the Fool. By killing Marty first the cynics, buying too far into their own stereotypes, would break their own ritual and end the world. When the red phone rang I actually felt the thrill of vindication. When the ending settled on conventional, I was disappointed and wondered if I outsmarted myself.

Maria Carvalho said...

I liked that the film could be full of horror, humour and still manage to be strange at the same time. The film did a good job of debunking horror clichés but I wish the fleshed out the lives of the characters more, they made them too 2D. I felt like the ending should have been revised, I mean there are evil powerful ancient gods that will kill all of humanity if this ritual does not please their lust for blood, kind of left me disappointed. I mean I feel like the film lost all touch of reality there and became a joke. Overall, a good film though and certainly not what I expected.

Dia Farrer said...

I must say, all of the comments here have been very thought provoking for me. I was fascinated with Cabin when I first saw it, in that it frustrated me as much as it entertained me. I'm usually a Joss Whedon devotee, and yet there are times where what's been referred to on here as his nihilism has driven me a little mad. He's so good at making likable characters and forming true companions, and yet shows these things to fail at deeper levels so often. Mart's decision at the end was just...So frustrating. Even if you want to argue that Dana SHOULDN'T have killed Marty to save the human race....Marty absolutely SHOULD want to sacrifice himself. Hell, he mentioned his parents and an obvious concern about what they think of him earlier in the film. It doesn't make ANY sense that he would sacrifice himself for them at least, if he's not going live one way or the other. It comes off as so pointless.

I'm not saying I want Marty to die, in fact...

@Dragonchild

WELL put. There are so many different ending I would have liked more, but in particular it would have been great if they had really turned the gender aspect of the final girl and the ritual archetypes on their head. The Ancient Ones are watching right? And "remember when it was as easy as throwing a girl in a volcano?" What if Dana had convinced, either through her actions or a little Doctor Who/Captain Picard speech that hey, I COULD be your fool and he COULD be your virgin. You've already got the blood filled in and everything, and here it is for you. Down she swan dives into the flames. It COULD be considered something of a redemption after her VERY questionable choice of letting the monsters loose. For that matter, She WAS the first to meddle with a doomsday device, and she DID open the door to let the Buckner's in. These in and of themselves aren't worthy of condemnation, but if Whedon wanted to subvert gender steriotypes...There are better ways. She would be facing death with dignity, which is more than a lot of horror film victims get, and she would be saving the human race in a truly epic way that would have both referrenced Buffy and the younger sister from The Last of the Mohicans(only an interesting idea because "The Huron" was one of "the monsters" let loose at the end)...It would have changed what he was trying to say and to deliver(a huge middle finger to the horror audience), but I would have liked it, and it's not like it would have been a happy ending through and through. The Gods need only be displeased once, after all, and there's always next year.

Hmm, on the note of one government or flawed system needing to be replaced by a better one, imagine Marty having to fill the role of his former controllers.

Of course, I realize none of this works in context of the movie that was made, but the real ending is just so upsetting in exactly the wrong way. He took away the only characters we were intended to like, by them turning on us (the human race us, not the Evil Gods us), and they did so by their own lucid choice.

Redshirt said...

Well, that's the thing, right? The real twist - by the end of the movie, you're rooting for the stoner to get killed. But it feels wrong, yet you know it's "the right thing to do".

I LOVED the ending for presenting these terms.

Sergio Lissone said...

If society is like a fractal, then libertarianism is the only solution for the harmony of any group. They have won the argument for morality, empathy, logic, history, economics, psychology and more. But as a human being, if you are still able to feel basic empathy and emotions, then you will find a natural, appealing harmony in this statement: "I refuse to accept the initiation of physical force against another man or their property for any reason."

Otherwise, you are being a kind of zombie or vampire yourself, lurking in the dark forest, feeding from the life force of one man after another, violating their integrity and using rationalizations to hide the fact. Each man may accept strength and love to help him stand on his own feet and find his way if he is lost, but he cannot take these by force without permission. That's a kind of desperate, fearful way of approaching life, when you could just see a therapist, learn to chill out, remember how to have fun and stop taking things so seriously that you would literally rob another man in a delusion that you had to in order to survive. No. Rediscover your self respect and help others to do the same, then we can have fun together without all this drama. No amount of complex, dramatic, intellectualized fears are an excuse for elevating what was supposed to be a fun game into a violent, authoritarian, control-based ordeal.

Yes, there will still be mindless zombies lurking out there, and Libertarians would use some existing free market solutions as well as new ideas to solve these problems. Mostly these problems can be prevented by better parenting, and systems that detect when children are suffering, well before they infect others with their suffering. Like using brain scans to detect children who have been abused - the technology already exists, but no one uses it. Health systems in a free market will be very interested in finding out which kinds of ideas cause happiness vs unhappiness and disease in adults, and educating people about this. And ultimately, insecure people care about looking good above all else. As a backup, we can still have quality reputation ratings systems with credit card companies and online if people want, or even some sort of rehab-like jail for people who just are violent and won't stop. But what we won't have is psychopaths in charge of grand armies, education of children, the water supply, the police and more. Those people, using the machine of control, have killed more of their own people in the 20th century alone than all murders and wars in history combined. The thing you need to be protected from is control itself. The alternative is what is violated by control: something far more subtle but stronger. Integrity.

Eric Martin said...

Insightful comments, but unbearably pretentious analysis. Author: You need to learn to express yourself honestly, instead of trying to influence other's opinion of you via your writings.

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