The Cabin in the Woods paints by numbers and doesn’t even bother to use any new colors. It is the quintessential slasher movie that exists in all of our cinematic collective memories. It follows the pattern so closely that you could predict its outcome with your eyes closed. That is until it breaks from those patterns so completely that you have no idea what you’re looking at anymore.
The set-up (see if you can’t guess it before reading this next paragraph): five high school kids go for a weekend retreat to a remote cabin. You have your slut, your jock, your sensitive intellectual, your burnout, and, finally, your virgin, who is hilariously introduced to us in only shirt and underwear. When they get to the cabin, these five horror staples manage to go into the cellar and mess around with objects that they shouldn’t. They incur the wrath of some zombies and ghosts. In the end, they all die. Most of them die in the exact manner that you’d expect them to die given the universe they occupy. Did I say too much? Probably not.
The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t take these tropes seriously. Or does it? Maybe it takes these horror rites of passage so seriously that it’s willing to call them out and poke glorious fun at them. This is a movie that knows it’s a movie and it knows that you know. It doesn’t exactly break the fourth wall, but it does put every ounce of possible pressure on it.
And so The Cabin in the Woods works on two distinct levels. On the first and most obvious level, it is a pointed critique of the laziness inherent in the slasher genre. On the second level, which we will get to in a minute, The Cabin in the Woods imagines the slasher universe in a whole new way.
Movie Inside Movie
It’s fair to say that Cabin is a conventional horror movie in that the zombies and ghouls are assumed to be real, but where it breaks from the traditional slasher movie is that the cabin itself is a trap. It’s said to belong to one of the teen’s cousins, but it is not; rather, it is quite literally an elaborate set designed to cage these five kids and kill them off in a conventional horror movie. The movie is not for us – well, it sort of is – but for some other unknown entity, an entity that demands to see the blood of these children spilled (virgin blood optional, of course).
Beyond the kids, or below them, is an underground control center in which every element of the cabin and its surroundings are manipulated by the two directors of this movie – business-like men calling shots to make sure that they get the desired result. If a couple is in the woods and the girl is unwilling to take off her shirt because it is too cold, they’ll just raise the temperature; if one of them comes up with a logical and helpful way to survive the zombie attack, control will just pump some brain-numbing mist on him through an innocent air vent. The demands of the genre must be met. If they are not met, we understand that those who commissioned this elaborate yet predictable show of bloodlust, will be very displeased.
While it is not really a laugh out loud movie, The Cabin in the Woods is clever enough to know how to play with its tropes even as it checks each one off with glee. When the slut is dared to make out with a stuffed wolf, and executes her dare with all the passion of an enflamed lover, we know the gig is up. If after this point you are scared by Cabin in any conventional way, I feel sorry for you. If you are going to enjoy Cabin at all, then you have to accept that this is a movie that knows exactly what it is. In fact, it goes so far as to know the slasher film is a distinctly American product, and that if one desires a certain level of death and dismemberment, Japanese and Eastern European products should be discarded promptly.
Cabin as Film Criticism
If you’re playing along, Cabin, from the moment it begins, should be seen as an act of film criticism. Joss Whedon, the film’s producer, has described Cabin as a “love hate letter” to the slasher genre, and I think this is probably the best way to watch it. But Cabin doesn’t just make fun of tropes and conventions by openly recognizing them. It actually implicates both the creator of the horror movie and its audience in a bloodthirsty game of serious moral implications. Michael Haneke would’ve been proud to make The Cabin in the Woods (though I suspect that Haneke could never have made a movie this fun or outrageous).
The stock characters survive long past their expiration date. They survive long enough to figure out that they are a part of an elaborate system, a glorified torture chamber. And they figure out, too, that below their cabin is a veritable insane asylum of horror creatures and non-creatures, held in chambers awaiting their turn to participate as villain in the torture ritual. As they bore deeper into the ground they finally discover that they have been brought together, the five of them, chosen specifically for their stereotype as a ritual sacrifice for the gods, who demand that the slasher ritual be performed or else they will destroy the world.
The gods? Yes, they represent the movie-going public, who demand that each element of genre ritual be met or else they will perhaps not destroy the world, but wreck havoc at the box office. And the fact that the gods do not desire autonomous characters of flesh and blood is proof that the audience is a cruel beast, inhumane and morally corrupt.
Am I stretching this too far? Cabin is, after all, meant to be enjoyed. Wheadon and Goddard (the film’s director) aren’t asking you to walk out of the theatre in sackcloth and ashes, demanding that you repent of your bloodlust. Maybe it can be viewed as a friendly reminder of what the slasher genre actually is – an exercise in nihilism. And as counterintuitive as this may seem when written out, nihilism can be and often is a lot of fun. In its own roundabout way, that’s what The Cabin in the Woods shows us.