The genre-bending horror flick The Cabin in the Woods debuted this weekend to critical acclaim. Though the movie got a 92% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, I found the film somewhat uneven. Those who saw the trailer and walked into The Cabin in the Woods thinking it was going to be scary might be disappointed.
If you want clever and funny mixed in with horror lite moments, you’ll enjoy what you see. The Joss Whedon script is full of sly references to horror film genres around the globe. The plot is based around stock American horror movie tropes, especially the splatter films of the 1980s onward mixed with certain elements of cosmic horror in literature.
What you get is a story that hits all the notes of slasher movies, but is something novel and creative. A friend of mine said this would probably be the most original horror screenplay you’d see all year.
That’s not saying much in a genre so derivative, but it’s still a certain distinction.
The Cabin in the Woods Plot
The plot involves 5 young college students traveling to a cousin’s cabin in the wilderness for a weekend of fun. These characters each fit into a horror film type: Curt the Athlete (Chris Hemsworth), Jules the Whore (Anna Hutchison), Holden the Brain (Jesse Williams), Marty the Fool (Fran Kranz), and Dana the Virgin (Kristen Connolly). When you look beneath the surface, none of these character fits their archetype that closely, since Jules is actually Pre-Med and Curt is a sociology major. These characters are shoehorned into these roles by the shadowy puppet-masters.
PLOT SPOILER ALERT: A Gas for Every Emotion
That’s because The Cabin in the Woods is heavy on meta-plot. People back in a control booth are manipulating the narrative. Everything is being filmed by producers Steve (Bradley Whitford) and Richard (Richard Jenkins). The whole thing’s a setup to appease ancient gods who remain sleeping if one nation on Earth makes the proper sacrifice once a year. All the countries of the world stage their own death ritual, including the Japanese, who have a perfect record. The short montage where we see the results of this year’s rituals from Japan, Sweden, Brazil, and elsewhere was priceless.
What I thought was a little cheesy was the use of special gas to prod characters’ actions. The aphrodisiac pheromones made a certain sense, but the gas which (SPOILER) caused someone to change their tactics seemed a little too much.
Also, every time the tension rose and a scary moment appeared ready to break out, the director panned back to the control room for a punchline. Don’t get me wrong: one-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins and The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford were terrific in their scenes. The entire production crew was so nonchalant about killing innocent victims that it reminded me of the C.S. Lewis quote, “The greatest evils in the world will not be carried out by men with guns, but by men in suits sitting behind desk“. I also thought about the Milgram experiment.
It was a sign of good writing that you still kind of liked these characters. I especially liked the action-movie version of Bradley Whitford towards the end, but trying to be a comedy and a horror story meant the end result fell between two proverbial chairs.
Of course, the humor is meant as social commentary. In a wider sense, the Ancient Ones aren’t really so much ancient old ones or old gods so much as they’re the viewing audience of Hollywood films in general and horror cinema in specific. Youths die in horror movies every year not to appease the gods, but to appease the American public. We might act like we want original storytelling and surprise twists, but the same formula is used over and over again because zombie horror and cheap torture porn makes money.
ENDING SPOILER ALERT: How It All Ends
That’s why the big titan fist at the end makes so much sense. At first, I was a little disappointed that Cthulhu or some other Lovecraftian horror didn’t emerge to devour the Earth. But the giant human fist is more apt than something out of H.P. Lovecraft, because the human viewers are who really pass judgment on whether more youngsters get sacrificed. But let’s get to the nuts and bolts of the ending of The Cabin in the Woods.
First of all, I enjoyed the mayhem at the end when all the movie monster options got released from their cages. The Pinhead knockoff made me laugh, though I’d like to have seen more of the film monsters so I could have enjoyed the various homages. I guess that’s what repeat viewings are for. (Read more about Pinhead in our post about bad movie doctors.)
Second, the ending was lame. I got the idea the writers and filmmakers wanted to show the gods come to life, so the ending was preordained. I got the idea we crossed over from the nice character-driven storytelling of Joss Whedon to a more plot-driven narrative in the final scene.
Most normal people, when they’re confronted with the idea they can die a fairly painless death and save the human race or live for a few minutes and let the human race (including them) die a horrible death, they would choose the bullet in the head over the alternative.
To Be or Not To Be…an Asshole
Instead, the two survivors sit around smoking weed as 6.7 billion people or so are snuffed out. I know these college students are pissed they were singled out for sacrifice, but it’s hard to blame the whole human race for that because “it’s time for a change”. Maybe that was some powerful weed, but what an awful conclusion for these characters to come to.
I suppose you could say they’d been so traumatized they weren’t thinking straight, but they seemed otherwise rational. To know the facts and choose to let everyone else die for the sake of spite or indifference is akin to murdering nearly 7 billion people and committing genocide on an unprecedented scale: an act 1000 times bloodier than the Holocaust.
In other words, it was an asshole move on the part of the two surviving characters. I guess maybe it was time for a change.
You can watch the trailer here: