The Cabin in the Woods isn’t your typical horror film. Well…it is, but it also isn’t. I’m gonna put a spolier warning on this article – just in case. If you haven’t seen Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s groundbreaking entry into the ever growing genre of horror, then you should. It truly is a cross-genre masterpiece. Not since Scream has the horror genre been so utterly flipped on its head, and beautiful so.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Five friends go to a cabin in the woods…
I read a review for The Cabin in the Woods when it originally came out. It was a spoiler-free review, because it’s one of those films that you don’t want to ruin for people. It’s just too amazing. It’s a film you wish you could erase from your memory – so you can experience seeing it again for the first time. Although I can’t remember which review it was (dammit), the article said something I still stand by: How you feel about the official summary of the film will determine how you feel about the film as a whole. The official summary is this, “Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen.” That might be the greatest description of this film ever, and the reviewer agreed. If you don’t love that summary, then I don’t think The Cabin in the Woods is the film for you.
Hey, have you seen The Evil Dead perchance? If you have, then the references in The Cabin in the Woods were made for you. If not, then it’s still fantastic, but the references will seem more general horror film clichés and not just a giant reference to that film and the ones that followed it. Sam Raimi’s trilogy stands as the base referential work for the five friends’ story at the cabin. The controller room, though? That’s a different story. The Cabin in the Woods is a film that, I’d say, is more deconstructionist than anything. The story of the film exists within the confines of itself, as both a “typical” horror film and as a science-fiction/fantasy-esque film, but it also deconstructs both, by using the other.
Science-fiction/fantasy and horror as genres are so closely related that it’s no doubt that Whedon and Goddard (who first worked with Whedon on Buffy as a staff writer!) mix and blend them together so seamlessly. In fact, they’ve both been playing with the loving combination of both genres (or is it three? I have no idea what to call the Control Center part of the film, honestly) for their entire careers.
So. Let’s talk about the Control Center part of the film, shall we? Regardless of how you identify the Control Center half of the film…it isn’t exactly horror, or even fantasy, but it’s not really science-fiction either. Instead, it’s a crazy mix of all three genres. It has the science-fiction aspect with how they’re controlling the kids, the fantasy element of ancient gods, and the horror component of monsters of all kinds and a blood bath of epic proportions.
For me, though, one of the most interesting parts of The Cabin in the Woods is the kids at the cabin. Are they going to someone’s distant relative’s cabin (in this case a non-existent cousin), with the full out intention to party? Yes, they are. They also fit into your typical “Scooby Gang of horror films” trope group. The best part about the kids at the cabin, though? The utter sadness you feel for who they all used to be. That’s something Whedon and Goddard did beautifully in the script. Here you have these five kids who are falling so easily into the perfect horror film tropes, but it become so much more tragic when you know who they were. They really aren’t your typical “five kids go to a cabin in the woods” kids – the Control Center made them that way.
Dana (Kristen Connolly) had a relationship with one of her professors which ended horribly. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) is a sociology major, on a full academic scholarship. Jules (Anna Hutchison) is pre-med and used to be a brunette, the only big thing Whedon and Goddard said they wish they’d done was show her as a brunette with her friends. Holden (Jesse Williams) is an all-state transfer student. Marty (the amazing Fran Kranz) is the only one who doesn’t really seem like he’s anything but his archetype, except that his complex relationship with Jules gets explored for a minute in the cabin. And that minute? It’s fucking glorious. Oh, and he’s also the most surprising character. He doesn’t actually fit into his archetype the way we think he will. But, overall, you really feel like these five characters are friends. So, we become mixed in our understand of what kind of audience we’re expected to be.
Whedon always intended the kids at the cabin to be an indictment of the horror genre.
On another level it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be all right but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.
This critique of the genre is evident in the cutting between the kids and the Control Center. The Control Center is the reflection of the typical film audience: cheering on the creatures as they systematically kill the kids, instead of wanting the kids to fight, to actually survive, and to win. Even the ancient ones are into torture-porn. So, if the Control Center is who we’re supposed to be, typically, then who we really are as an audience is heightened because we aren’t actually cheering on the creatures. We become the audience who saw the the original Halloween and The Evil Dead. We’re cheering on the kids in their struggle for survival. We want to see the kids win, and for the “typical audience” to get shut down, like the monsters that they are.
Whedon and Goddard did something really important by creating and structuring their critique of the horror genre the way that they did. Even if some audiences won’t recognize it for what it is, their example will be there forever. Here are two of the most influential creators of our time saying, “Maybe it’s time for a change.”
–Emily Frances Maesar