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By Adam Nayman


It’s one thing to get a lesson in remedial spectatorship from a professional scold like Michael Haneke, whose films can sometimes feel like the cinematic equivalent of the headmaster ritual; it’s quite another when the lecture comes courtesy of Joss Whedon. His script for The Cabin in the Woods (co-written with the film’s director, Drew Goddard) examines the codes and conventions of horror films with a lepidopterist’s gaze—through a glass, smugly.

It’s impossible to further discuss The Cabin in the Woods—and what’s wrong with it—without heading deep into spoiler territory. The cold open introduces Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (both great) as office drones in a massive subterranean facility. We quickly learn that they’re supervisors in an elaborate, money-is-no-object government plot to corral and kill a group of five American teenagers in a manner befitting a 1980s B-movie. (The Evil Dead [1983] jumps immediately to mind based on the eponymous locale). That this “blood sacrifice” is demanded by a clutch of inter-dimensional monsters who will trigger apocalypse if they are not appeased is supposed to be the film’s metaphorical ace in the hole. If the shirt-sleeved controllers manipulating their oblivious human quarries with a vaguely defined combination of special effects, hallucinogenic drugs, human collaborators and genetically engineered monsters are stand-ins for a film crew, the unseen elder gods are meant to represent the mass audience’s collective, unquenchable blood lust—a thirst that can only be slaked through the right combination of frivolity, familiarity and brutality.

Goddard and Whedon are doing a few things at once here, including bemoaning the way that horror films treat their characters like malleable, expendable props. (And they’re not just criticizing American films: in probably the film’s best joke, we see that every country in the world has its version of this operation, with a roomful of Japanese kids menaced by a pale, perfunctorily hovering girl-ghost.) To that end, the slim-hipped, horny archetypes prepping a weekend of debauchery aren’t in fact lazy stereotypes, but a troupe painstakingly assembled according to expectations: slutty Jules (Anna Hutchinson), stoned Marty (Fran Kranz), soulful Holden (Jesse Williams), studly Curt (Chris Hemsworth), and final-girl-in-waiting Dana (Kristen Connolly). But instead of gradually acquiring human dimension as the film goes on, these figures remain, through no fault of the generally appealing performers, ciphers utterly at the mercy of their twice-removed puppet masters. Besides which, it’s arguable that the aggressively meta nature of the film actually conditions us to anticipate their demises just as shamelessly as any old unself-conscious actual horror movie, if not more so.

And it should be said that The Cabin in The Woods is not an actual horror movie, starting with the fact that it isn’t actually scary, unlike Scream (1996), which went through its deconstructive paces without sacrificing shocks. In one of the script’s many “playful” (read: laboured) twists, it’s revealed that Dana and company must themselves (a la Gozer) choose the form of their destructor. Led into a creepy basement with an endless supply of artifacts that can act as triggers for an infinite number of killer scenarios, they end up activating the “zombie” routine. No amount of eye-rolling reaction shots from Whitley and Jenkins signifying the boringness of this selection (they were rooting for Death by Mer-Man) can alleviate the fact that it actually is a boring selection—and in many ways the path of least resistance for the filmmakers. Goddard’s staging of the shuffle-stalk stuff is strictly standard-issue, erring at all times on the side of caution. For a film supposedly catalyzed by the debased desires of dark forces, its gore is pretty discreet.

Of course, the perfunctoriness of the mid-film mini-movie where undead bogeys assault the cabin (very slowly) is also just a set-up for Goddard and Whedon’s next big reveal, when Dana and Marty find a door in the floor and breach the facility (joining the film’s two worlds) to find a massive, steel-and-glass holding area containing ghouls and creatures of all kinds. The idea of a menagerie containing all of our collective fears is original and richly suggestive, but the disarming graveness of the image gives way to an antic CGI blur as the supernatural inmates overrun the asylum, mauling their jailers in an all-out monster attack that isn’t so much without cinematic precedents as it is all those precedents slamming together at 90 mph. It’s an impressive sequence, but it’s flimsy compared to the titular critters’ rampage through a faux Trump Tower in Gremlins 2 (1990). Where that was a wry, Bret Easton Ellis by way of Chuck Jones portrait of (literally) rapacious ‘80s consumerism made cartoonishly monstrous, the centrepiece sequence in Cabin is simply a special-effects exercise that adds little to the underlying argument about the perils (both aesthetic and moral) of a genre cinema where everything is rigorously preordained. It also feels like a bit of a sop to the very audience that Whedon and Goddard start out— and end up—taking to task for wanting just these sort of over-amped money shots.

In Whedon’s writer’s-strike make-work project Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008), the eponymous super-villain (played by a pre-over-exposure Neil Patrick Harris) achieves his goal of world domination at the expense of his dream girl, who becomes a casualty to a death-ray demonstration gone wrong. That threadbare, lovingly hand-made internet musical demonstrated most of Whedon’s strengths, most notably his ability to subtly up the dramatic stakes within a seemingly weightless scenario. He did the same thing in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which smartly exploited their slick, post-Kevin Williamson teen-horror trappings while sneaking real dread in the back door. Even the underappreciated Serenity (2005), which built off of Whedon’s uneven TV space opera Firefly, embedded a cogent mass-cultural critique into its plot, which hinges on the revelation of mass-pacification techniques that end up yielding barbaric, homicidal behaviour—a good-natured jibe at the dangers of a homogenized television landscape.

Whedon is usually so good at shading inside the lines of his chosen generic milieux that it’s odd for him to commit himself to the kind of bigger-picture blueprinting represented by The Cabin in the Woods, unless perhaps he’s feeling pressure in his role as the young elder statesman of North American genre filmmaking to attempt so ungenerous a gesture as the final word on the state of his art. What else could account for Cabin’s most ostentatiously “powerful” scene, a carefully prepared set-piece where Dana is bludgeoned half to death by a hulking male zombie while, prematurely celebrating their “victory,” the controllers throw themselves a drunken party, turning a blind eye to the violence they’ve authored on their huge video monitors. The idea that Dana’s fear and pain suddenly and significantly exceeds the generic boundaries of the in-film initiative is sententious in the extreme, as is the fact that Whedon and Goddard absolve themselves of any exploitative impulses by hiding behind their parable’s rickety Lovecraftian undergirding: don’t blame us, blame the Elder Gods (i.e. you). Another major spoiler: when the monsters don’t get what they want, the world ends, which is a pretty good way of allegorizing this much-hyped production’s likely commercial fate once people realize it’s Funny Games for fanboys.

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6 Responses to Escape Hatches: The Cabin in the Woods

  1. Jeremiah says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I have read many negative comments on CABIN IN THE WOODS, but few as articulate as yours. I don’t share your opinion of the film, but you make several salient points.

    I see a lot of good arguments here, but I disagree with your idea that Whedon and Goddard are scapegoating the audience with their third act reveal of the “old gods.” I felt that Marty and Dana’s decision to let everything blow up was a message that we need to find new horrors, new ways of communicating our fears in the movies. This is especially evident earlier in the film when we see that every horror effort internationally was a failure. Horror film, the movie seems to suggest, has grown tired and stale, and the audience is looking for something better.

    Another disagreement I have here is with your idea that the characters don’t grow. I think they do, but it’s more of a regression than a progression. When we meet them in the first act, they are fully developed people who do not fit the stereotypes they are later forced into. Curt is a sociology major on a full scholarship, Jules is a pre-med student, Dana is a “whore” who has recently ended a relationship with her college professor, and Holden is more of the sensitive jock (“he has good hands.”). The only character who never changes is Marty, whose marijuana usage is his saving grace — yet, despite being “the fool,” he’s remarkably intelligent, insightful, and heroic. As the film progresses, each — except Marty — devolve due to the Operator’s assumption of what the Old Gods want from their sacrifice. The devolution of these characters is the most compelling element of the movie. It makes a bold statement that our current crop of horror filmmakers don’t consider character at all, and don’t give their stories the opportunity to break new ground by letting their character’s breathe.

    CABIN IN THE WOODS is a definitive criticism on the modern horror film. It takes the subject matter seriously, despite the dark humor. Whereas SCREAM was tongue-in-cheek, meta, but ultimately status quo, Whedon and Goddard have made a case for change. It’s not enough to just make the same old film with different twists and gimmicks — we need a new paradigm. In essence, the world needs to be blown up to give us better stories.

  2. Adam Nayman says:

    Hi Jeremiah
    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m intrigued by your reading of the end of the film, but if we accept your premise — that Whedon and Goddard are trying to shift paradigms in horror filmmaking — then I’d have preferred they gave us some idea what that might look/feel like instead of giving us an annotated report card on the state of the union — or a “definitive criticism of the modern horror film” as you put it. While I would never be so cynical as to suggest that they’re incapable of generating those “new horrors” you say they’re looking for, there’s something pretty cozy about their presentation of the old ones — and about their suggestion that the onus for that kind of revolution is more on the audience that’s just paid for the privilege of learning such a valuable lesson.

    Thanks very much for the feedback: glad to know people are reading.


  3. Kate says:

    Ahoy all!

    So many delightful things to talk about, likely more than I’ll have time to tackle, but here goes:

    To begin with, Jeremiah’s apt reading of the end of the film – that the filmmakers are commenting on the need for new horror narratives – is very similar to the idea I was left with after the film. The major difference between our readings is that I think the commentary isn’t limited to horror narratives. Rather, the film is aiming much higher – taking any and all narratives that rely on a certain understanding of the human, or ‘character’, to task.
    Adam, I was impressed with your critique – far more thoughtful than others, many of which seem to think saying ‘but it wasn’t scary!’ is more than enough of a critique. And you’re clearly familiar with Whedon, which I appreciate. Serenity is terribly underrated – but I have to disagree with you on one point there, too. While you certainly could argue that the film is critiquing television culture, I don’t think it’s that simple. Not only is Whedon heavily invested in the positive potential of populist mediums and narratives, and their ability to offer alternatives to authoritarian or established modes of thought – hence the film’s tagline, You Can’t Stop the Signal, a specifically televisual sentiment – but, again, I think his target is much larger there. The commentary in Serenity is about any form of utopianism, or seeming utopianism, that holds that humanity must become, or must be forced to become, ‘better’ than it is in order to achieve it, or be worthy of it. Whedon believes that as soon as you alter the human for that purpose, you’ve forfeited what you were trying to achieve in the first place. It’s no longer a human utopia. He is far more interested in questions about what we can do with ourselves, how we can aim to be better, while keeping our problems, our dark sides, our failings, and carrying them along with us.
    Hence my surprise at the idea that Whedon and Goddard, in Cabin in the Woods, judge themselves above either the genre or the audience of that genre. Firstly, I don’t think anyone who dismisses a genre could bring such a delighted love to the tropes these guys wheel around with something like joy. The sequence in the basement of the cabin, where every character except Marty can’t resist, just as we can’t resist, the treasure trove of strange, frightening objects is one of my favourite examples in this regard. And the enraptured, laughing, screaming audience I was lucky enough to see it with certainly didn’t, I think, feel lectured to or somehow put below the film.
    The filmmakers’ love for the genre points toward another element missing in your discussion – unlike Scream, the filmmakers here write themselves into the film. Not only is the audience given a surrogate within the film, the makers take the form of both Whitley and Jenkin’s characters and, even more interestingly, The Director, inspiringly played by Sigourney Weaver. The character of the Director is something of a pathetic figure, here – utterly complacent, cronying for a larger power (re: the audience, though, of course, the question of when, how and if consent was given for such speaking on behalf of is purposefully placed in an unreachable past) while taking no responsibility for the role she’s played in both building and continuing that system. The question of the responsibility of the director for this system looms large here – this is one reason why I’m surprised to see a complaint of Whedon and Godard setting themselves above, and lecturing, their audience. Unlike both Haneke and Williamson (a grouping I never thought I’d make), the filmmakers here don’t count themselves as separate from the issue they want to face. I’m often intensely offended by Haneke’s self-righteousness, and I think it’s a serious mistake to equate Whedon’s love of populist forms with it. And, I can’t help but noting, Whedon’s Buffy film predates Scream, just as the Buffy series predates Dawson’s creek – at best, they entered the landscape together.
    The question of violence is an interesting one here, too. While I personally admired the conceit of the party sequence – allow us, the actual audience, to be aware of the violence without having the film revel in it – I could admit that it fits a reading of the film as didactic, were it not for the earlier sequence with Jules. Again, the film doesn’t want to have it’s cake and eat it too. It’s aware that it’s part of the genre (whether or not you agree with that assessment) and, as such, it requires both female nudity and violence toward women. Despite the complaints that the film isn’t scary (again, not a unified chorus) I found this sequence quite unsettling, and I jumped when she gets the knife through the hand. Whedon showing a naked woman exhibitionist-ly was just as uncomfortable for me as watching Dana in the background being thrown around by the zombie guy, and I think it speaks to his belief that if you love something, i.e., the popular horror genre, you hold the responsibility for loving every aspect of it (again, something he and Goddard are admitting about themselves, not placing solely at the audience’s feet).
    But enough of belaboring that point. Onto the ‘other narratives’ question: you mention in response to Jeremiah that the film would do better to show these new horror narratives, rather than simply bemoan the lack of them. I have a few things to say this but the first is that I think you answer your own complaint when you mention Whedon’s other projects early in your review. Though I think you can make the argument for all of his productions, Buffy and Angel most easily answer the question of what a new horror narrative might look like (and though its not a perfect TV show, Dollhouse is a fascinating example of trying to write a narrative around the, possibly horrifying, idea of non self-identical human). I also don’t concede that Cabin in the Woods is devoid of new narrative possibilities: in your review, you don’t mention one of the most interesting sequences of the film, in which Dana has to choose between killing her friend or letting the world end. The world doesn’t simply end, our presumed heroine chooses to destroy it. I’ll return to that below, but for now, suffice to say – this is a scenario that strikes me as new, at least in this generic framework (where the traditional ending would require the heroine to save herself by returning violence with violence, here she specifically gives up her life for an idea. Though, of course, that sacrifice is not self-sacrifice, it’s rather a violence done to the world; things are rarely easy and straightforward in the Whedonverse. For example, my 19 year old niece read that scene completely differently than I did – her take was that for Dana, the existence of the world is only a representation, and it’s easier to destroy a distant idea than to kill a friend. When was the last time a horror film offered a scene that offered those kind of options for thought? Unless we count Zodiac as a slasher film, I can’t think of one…)
    And to shade my answer to the complaint in a different, possibly contradictory way, I don’t think Cabin in the Woods could offer those kinds of narratives without, at the least, being accused of didacticism. As I’ve hinted at, I don’t think Whedon, or Goddard, believe that you can dictate what form popular narratives should take. You might be able to offer examples, suggested avenues, experiments to see what catches (see Buffy), but I don’t think the filmmakers would ever say that it’s their right to tell their audience what they must like.
    ‘But,’ I can hear the cry, ‘they’re telling us what we shouldn’t like here!’ Perhaps, though, as I’ve already said, I don’t think the force of that critique implies the idea that there were never good things about the genre (see, the inspired Alien reference Sigourney Weaver’s presence makes). This is one of the things I love about Whedon – his philosophy, and it is a philosophy, ye scoffers – allows for the contradiction that telling others what to do/think entails a host of problems and, yet, the world isn’t good, and so we have to change things. In the Whedonverse, we have to navigate between those two ideas while not falling into inaction, or despondency. As Jeremiah points out, I think there’s a difference here between saying that certain genres have become tired vs. saying that they were never good or never can be good or worthwhile again.
    My own take on the ending is perhaps more complicated than I should launch into here, but briefly: as I said earlier, I don’t think the concern of the film is simply horror movies, I think it is, instead, narratives that demand and rely on the idea of the ‘essence’ of a person, that a person has a consistent, self-identical, abiding core, a core that can, say, have an outline drawn around it.
    But rather than diving off that cliff, I’ll say instead, Dana and Marty come to the conclusion that a world built on a belief that some of the people in that world are expendable, and necessarily will be expended, is not a world worth saving. However, the world here is not literal – it is the world of language, of narrative forms, of the moving pictures we have of our existence, in essence, the human world. When Dana and Marty agree that perhaps it’s time for something new, and choose to destroy the old, including themselves, the hand that will come out of the ground has to be vaguely human-ish, because the new world, the thing we hope for, the change we want to make, is in how we see the world, our pictures for making sense of and getting along with one another. There will always be a human form doing the making sense (we can’t imagine a world without the human, as, otherwise, who’s doing the imagining?). The hand the comes up out of the ground is the human, the audience of the film, at the precipice of destruction and renewal involved in facing the terrifying idea that we can and must and do come up with our ways of seeing the world. I think Whedon and Goddard have nothing but respect for their audience, for their potential to, en masse, change our stories, and change the world.

    It’s the exact opposite of Funny Games.

  4. Adam says:

    Hi Kate
    I enjoyed reading your thorough response! I think that the scene you talk about where the heroine has to choose between killing her friend or letting the world end is extremely “Whedonesque;” it has its roots in some of the damned-if-I-do/damned-if-I don’t predicaments that the Scooby Gang faced on basically an annual basis. The difference — and it’s no white-hot insight on my part to point it out — is that more was at stake with those characters because of how carefully they’d been developed over time. I understand that one of CABIN’S aims is to coax us to see the humanity and individuality in stock figures — to realize, as you so eloquently put it, that these people cannot simply be expendable in a (filmic/real) world worth living in and preserving — but I think that Whedon and Goddard’s reach exceeds their grasp here. Leaving aside the fact that the “idea” that she is giving her life up for here is comparatively underdeveloped (not much time with all the slamming around and CGI craziness), I never really felt ike the sacrifice belonged to her, because I have no real idea who she is after 90 minutes. Instead, I feel like she – and I — are being manipulated by filmmakers who fancy themselves interventionists. Do I think that Joss Whedon walks around thinking that he’s “above” the populist forms that he’s so successfully bent to his will over the years? Probably not. But CABIN IN THE WOODS still feels infused by a kind of chicken-little-ism that bothers me as much in art cinema (and art-cinema criticism) as it does in genre stuff. I’m less interested in being told that genres are tired (even if it’s true) than I am in seeing filmmakers wake them up. I don’t know if I agree that I “answer my own complaint” by citing Whedon’s past work: CABIN is the movie I was reviewing and if anything I was disappointed that it seemed angled as a mature culmination of a body of work that had been doing just fine before.

  5. Kate says:

    Hello again!

    Thanks for your response as well! After thinking about, I think our major difference of opinion comes down to the characterization in the film – you found it lacking, and this negatively colored your enjoyment/experience of the rest of the film. I didn’t have this issue, and I certainly couldn’t argue to make you enjoy something you didn’t! No amount of Internet commenting could achieve such a feat, I think.
    There has been a series of responses to this discussion posted on my Facebook wall, and I’ve encouraged people to write their comments here. One of the major points (and I agree with it, though I will concede that if one didn’t have this in mind when watching the film the first time, I don’t think the opposing experience can be un-had) is the argument that Wheddard, as my delightful friend Katie has nominated the filmmakers, is purposefully drawing the characters as unwhole – thereby activating the question of why it is that we think we can draw a line at which ‘types’ of people we feel for. I agree with this reading, and have made a different version of this type of argument, though applied very differently, in my own work on the films of Chantal Akerman. With, as you point out, Whedon’s wonderful ability to give us SPECTACULAR characters in his other projects, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say they the filmmakers here are doing this purposefully (there are many nods toward it in the film – not only Marty’s dismay at the characters having become less than their normal selves, but also the visual idea of the outline for each ‘type.’ And Katie has argued that the film is doing this even from the get-go, testing us with our response to the less than ‘fully characterized’ characters in the opening scenes.) My personal take here is that the characterization they employ is yet another aspect of the genre that they are both lovingly using and skewering. I do take your point that this necessarily cedes some of the gravitas that the final confrontation could have had (I mean, it’s not Buffy ultimately besting Glory, or anything) but I don’t think that level of engagement is necessary for what the filmmakers are doing here. I personally never had a moment where I felt left in the cold by the film or the characters but I, again, understand that you can’t argue someone else into that viewpoint.
    I will say at last that I do think the only criticism worth listening to is criticism which has truly spent time with it’s object, done everything it can to understand what its object feels it’s saying, loved it or tried to love it, tried to make its best qualities accessible to others and then, if necessary, argued against certain elements of what the object is doing. I think that is what Cabin in the Woods has done with the horror genre. And I’ve very much enjoyed this discussion, this work of criticism and conversation.
    Lets get together and talk Buffy sometime!

  6. Sara says:

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your provocative article!

    I’m with Kate on this one. I didn’t read the film as a criticism of the genre at all, or a lecture on the shameful pleasures of horror. I think Whedon and Goddard both love and respect the horror genre, but recognize that it needs some modifications– or even a complete overhaul (if you read the ending as a gesture towards a tabula rasa, and yes that’s meant to be a Buffy reference). Perhaps you are sensing this ambivalence and reading it as disdain. Cabin in the Woods isn’t a polemic; if you read it as one it will inevitably feel like a failure.

    I acknowledge your issues with the characterization: but as Kate mentions, Whedon and Goddard both have a history of writing great characters. It wouldn’t make sense for them to fail here, unless it was on purpose. And I’ll speculate that it was a conscious decision, one that was meant to illustrate the ways in which the current horror framework doesn’t allow characters to circumvent their generic functions. While these tropes are limiting, I still think they are presented here as cozily familiar—like old friends. Ok, acquaintances. And that’s the rub.

    Horror is an incredibly tricky genre to do effectively, largely because it involves sorting through a complex lacework of threadbare conventions, hand-me-down formulas and familiar tropes. Especially when it comes to characters. Having fully fleshed out, richly textured, sympathetic characters can be risky for a horror film—because after all, these characters have to die (according to the convention, all but one). They have to be put in situations we would never want to be put in. A fuller realization of characters can certainly give their traumas more potency and emotional impact. But I imagine it also risks being too much. Horror must be horrifying (and I’m talking about terror here, not gore) but it’s got to be just enough without being intolerable. Surely some level of defensive distance is needed. Of course by contrast, not developing characters enough has the opposite effect—the stakes are too low to have any real weight. In the end the effect can be dehumanizing, exploitive and downright lazy. It’s a fine balance, and one that Cabin in the Woods grapples with (but in your account, fails) and considers throwing out all together. A new set of conventions is needed, if we want to reinstate the power of horror.

    So while it may not have been entirely effective as a horror movie in terms of its ability to terrify, perhaps that’s the point. These well-worn conventions might entertain, but they don’t challenge us, they don’t provoke real fear. It seems to me that Whedon and Goddard recognize that horror is a vital, perennial cultural ritual. It serves a greater purpose: and I don’t think that purpose is blood lust. I disagree with you that the elder gods are meant to represent the sadistic masses. I read the elder gods as a manifestation of something more complicated: perhaps our deep, primal urge to imagine, confront and work through things that terrify us. In this way, yes these characters are our sacrifices: they take on our nightmares so we don’t have to. While we may watch them die, the pleasure we get is not so much from their pain, but relief that it’s not our own.

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