Warning! The following column, by necessity, spoils pretty much all of the major surprises and plot twists from the recently released film The Cabin In The Woods. If you are trying to remain spoiler-free on that movie, you should probably read this after you see it. A partially spoiler-free review of the film can be found here.
Last year, director Zack Snyder and his wife/co-producer/co-writer Deborah released a movie titled Sucker Punch. The title, seemingly, was a reference to the film’s bold bait-n-switch marketing: promising (and, to be fair, technically delivering) a flood of sequences where young looking starlets bound through action scenes in fetishistic costumes, while the storyline and tone shifts actually berate the (mostly male) audience for wanting to see that in the first place. Short version: the film frames the action scenes as being fantasies the girls escape into while being forced to dance for leering male characters, which is in turn itself a fantasy they are already using to escape being sexually assaulted in “reality”, thus implicating the male audience of the movie in the rape of it’s female characters. The title could just have easily been applied to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods, which is designed to look like a cliched horror movie from the outside but hides a series of game changing plot twists inside. What those twists add up to feels an awful lot like an angry, resentful slap to the face of the audience itself.
Cabin‘s story is as old as the modern horror genre itself: a group of college-aged kids – The Nice Girl, The Naughty Girl, The Jock, The Nerd, and The Comic-Relief Stoner – head up to a secluded woodland cabin in the middle of nowhere. Once there, having rejected the obvious “get the hell out of here!” red flag of a ghoulish redneck gas station attendant en-route, they engage in playful booze/drug fueled debauchery until youthful curiousity leads them to mess around with the wrong Forbidden Object. They unwittingly raise a family of torture-worshipping, backwood zombies who proceed to pick them off one by one, helped in no small part by the heroes’ tendency to make stupid decisions like splitting up, wandering off alone, and locking horns for alpha-male dominance. Even before you’ve seen this movie, you’ve seen this movie …
… and that’s the idea.
The first major “twist” to the story is actually given away right off the bat: in a high-tech underground facility, a pair of glumly generic middle-management types (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) are controlling the events surrounding The Cabin, literally. Backed up by an apparently massive staff of engineers, technicians, and scientists, these two guys are using environmental controls, hidden cameras, mind-control gas, and chemical subterfuge to gently nudge the oblivious vacationers into assuming stock character roles in a horror movie scenario. The two operators also control the means of the characters’ eventual demise (we learn that the Zombie Redneck Torture Family is merely one of many evil-forces that could have been summoned) and ensure that each specific character is murdered at their designated time.
Why are these kids being murdered, and why is their slaughter so important as to be stage-managed in a manner befitting a NASA shuttle launch? That’s the biggest of Cabin‘s Big Ideas: It’s a present-day Ritual Sacrifice – the facility is charged with keeping ancient Lovecraftian Elder Gods slumbering and complacent by offering up an annual blood tribute … but the Ancient Ones don’t simply demand death, they demand the death of specific “types” in a specific scenario in a specific order. They don’t merely want to be fed, they want to be entertained, and entertained according to very exacting standards. If They don’t get what They want, the world comes to an end.
If the symbolism isn’t already made clear enough, the film helpfully spells it out when the two showrunners’ taciturn new security officer expresses disgust at their glib hope that the “Dumb Blonde” (actually a brunette whose hair-dye they’ve covertly treated with chemicals to lower her cognitive functions) will take her top off before she’s killed. Their unblinking response is “We’re not the only ones watching” and “Gotta keep the customer satisfied”. The movie is a metaphor for the making of a movie: The killings at the cabin are “The Movie”, while the murder facilitating office drones are “The Filmmakers”.
In particular, they’re frustrated horror filmmakers, suffering as they try to be creative and/or fulfilled despite having to conform to rigid genre requirements. Whitford, as the younger of the two, is visibly disappointed that this cycle’s scenario has yielded boring old zombies again, while he wistfully yearns for the chance to run a scenario starring a more interesting, offbeat creature (“I just thought it’d be cooler with a Merman”). We also see brief glimpses of similar rituals being carried out elsewhere in the world, most notably one where a group of Japanese schoolgirls are locked in a classroom with a long haired ghost a’la The Grudge.
So what, then, do the Elder Gods represent? Well, on one level, the whole “ritual sacrifice” idea is a dig at the very nature of horror movie viewership in the first place; e.g. the not-exactly-novel parallel between horror fans of today and attendees of public executions or gladiatorial combat in ancient times. But on a bigger level, particularly in their relationship to the crew at the facility, they seem to represent The Audience, period, not just screaming for blood, but demanding that it be the same blood. They want formula. They expect cliché. They want the comfort of familiarity, to see the same basic thing (telling the same basic story and reinforcing the same basic message) over and over with as few surprises as possible. And if they don’t get it, they will literally raise hell.
There is, of course, a certain fiendishly delightful symmetry to this particular film to come out telling this particular story in the same timeframe as the remarkably enduring “Re-Take Mass Effect” debacle; which finds game developer Bioware scrambling to placate their infuriated Elder Gods, whose fury at their subjects’ latest offering failing to meet their exacting specifications has been shaking the earth beneath their Cabins for almost a month now. As Cabin In The Woods’ metaphor was revealed to me at my first screening weeks ago, the plight of Bioware was the first thing that popped into my head. I wonder how many of their employees have seen the movie and if they, like me, found themselves oddly just as sympathetic to the hapless Facility employees as to the Cabin victims?
The film is a clever inversion, to be sure. Watching filmmakers complain via subtext that their genius is going unappreciated can be insufferable, but Cabin finds raw movie-geek joy in the airing of these particular grievances. Lots of stories have delved into similar symbolism, but usually erring on the simpler metaphor of Movie Directors as gods and characters as their unwitting pawns (see: The Truman Show, where the egomaniacal TV producer controlling Jim Carrey’s entire life is archly named “Christoff”). The notion of the Mainstream Audience as a massive, unstoppable lurking horror that The Filmmakers must appease at all cost lest they revolt and end the world (re: their livelihoods) in anger is a brutally honest summation of the way people in the creative industry often wind up feeling about the consumer public; rightly or wrongly.
Cabin ultimately stretches that particular metaphor to the breaking point. The film’s third act is an off-the-rails free-for-all where “characters” not meant to survive infiltrate and collapse the system by releasing the stable of standby monsters and forcing The Facility to battle its own army of (among other things) werewolves, giant-bugs, serial-killers, evil clowns, mummies, serpents, Cenobites, and even a homicidal unicorn. It’s a feast for discerning film geeks and horror buffs alike, but it’s also the sort of lunacy that’s bound to make less adventurous filmgoers confused or even angry. So, of course, the longer it plays out and the more gloriously strange things get, the more the subterranean Elder Gods shake the earth with their fury and disappointment. “I didn’t know it was gonna be all weird like that!” raged one theatergoer to her partners at one of my (four, so far) viewings of the film. “That was stupid! Go get our money back!” grumbled another, evidently unaware of how perfectly they were making the film’s point for it. I wonder if they’ll think to send Joss Whedon some cupcakes … or complain to the FTC.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.