Welcome to our new weekly video series Sight Unsound, where filmmaker and writer Ted Wilkes offers his own alternative theories on film, television and pop culture.
This week: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s merciless postmodern deconstruction of the horror genre, The Cabin in the Woods.
And for those who prefer a long-read, here’s the full text, which we originally published last year…
The Cabin in the Woods is a two-way mirror exposing the very soul of the slasher flick and the audiences that consume them. Both celebrating and rejecting the very structure that holds such films together. Lampooning the executives that commission them, critiquing the writers that pen them and exposing those in the cinema who watch them.
On the surface, Cabin in the Woods is the most clichéd of all premises. Five friends: the jock, the dumb blonde, the stoner, the intellectual and the virgin decide to travel up to a… uh… cabin in the woods for a weekend getaway unaware of the horrors that await them when they arrive.
However deep below the cabin they are travelling to, reside the ‘old gods’ that used to roam the land, bringing with them death and destruction. The only thing that keeps these monsters at bay are the ritualistic sacrifices the ‘authorities’ make for them. No longer will goat blood and virgins tossed into volcanoes quench their thirst, now they demand a show to go with their dinner. It’s up to a facility just above the gods – and an elevator ride below the cabin – to provide this very entertainment.
Throughout the opening we jump between two stories, one a slasher above ground, the other a buddy love tale below it. Both masterfully paced and controlled by Whedon and Goddard, they never appear disjointed. In the beginning, the architects of the horror, Steve and Gary, are our unlikely heroes. We actively encourage them to find the means to kill off the unlikeable cast of teenagers in the most gruesome way possible.
The pair (and the remainder of the crew who work at the facility) have many tools at their disposal which help nudge the teenagers in the right fatal direction. The first hurdle for the facility though is to persuade the characters above ground to essentially decide their fate for themselves.
Gary explains that they’re unable to simply just kill them, it has to be their choice – the sin of curiosity and arrogance – that brings about their downfall. He uses the The Harbinger as an example…
“It’s like The Harbinger. He’s a creepy old fuck – practically wears a sign ‘you will die’. Why do we put him there? The system. They have to choose to ignore him. And they have to choose what happens in the cellar. Yeah we rig the game as much as we need to. But in the end, they don’t transgress…”
He’s alluding to the structure of all Hollywood horror films. We expect that the teenagers in any slasher will be challenged at some point to turn back; given a warning that down the dark path there is nothing for them. However, they will always advance on regardless.
The facility manipulates the teenagers further, pigeonholing them into the stock characters we expect from the genre. The jock dons a varsity jacket, the nerd finds glasses, the blonde regresses to a toddler-like state and ‘the virgin’ Dana begins to find herself a prude despite not being anything of the sort.
The tropes are both mocked and celebrated. In the facility, an employee informs Gary that the blond hair dye used by Jules contains chemicals that “slow down cognition.” Gary comments, “Dumb blonde. Very artistic.” Although this sounds sarcastic on paper he means it as a compliment; recognising the trope of the genre that one of the party has to be a simpleton and normally the first to die.
And die she does, as do the other kids one-by-one. The standard illogical transgressions of characters in slashers explained away by the further meddling of the facility. No longer does splitting up or dropping useful weapons seem irritatingly gormless when pheromones and electric shocks are factored into the character’s behaviour.
Finally we’re led to believe that only Dana is left alive. An intern at the facility asks how the sacrifice can be over if one of the teenagers is left alive? Steve explains, “The virgin’s death is optional, as long as it’s last. The main thing is that she suffers.”
It’s the finale of every slasher film, the innocent is either left scarred by the experience, having defeated the monster and seen her friends die at its hands, or is the final meal in the closing frame. However, Holden the stoner returns and saves her, escaping into the heart of the facility. The classic structure breaks and we are left with an ending that does not conform to the normal horror tropes.
Various monsters from across the multiverse pour into the facility to maim and kill indiscriminately. Structure has failed and there is only anarchy. Although perhaps the greatest disrupting factor here is that ‘the fool’ of the piece has taken it upon himself to become the hero. No longer a device, he is now a fully formed three-dimensional character.
Our sympathies are no longer with those in the facility, but with the two teenagers who are left. The film has performed an impressive turnaround. We identify with a set of previously unsympathetic characters who we now want to see survive.
As they battle for survival they find themselves in the pit of the facility where their sacrifice was meant to take place. Here they meet ‘The Director’ (another very obvious nod to the idea that the facility is akin to a film crew) who reveals all about the true nature of the cabin and in a typically postmodern twist, pitches nearly every Hollywood horror film ever made:
“It’s different in every culture… And it has changed over the years. It always requires youth. There must be at least five. The whore – she’s corrupted. She dies first. The athlete. The scholar. The fool. All supper and die at the hands of whatever horror they have raised. Leaving the last to live or die as fate decides, the virgin.”
The final image of the film is a vengeful god rising out of the cabin, smiting everything around it including the camera itself. It’s the ultimate rejection of structure and expectation. The god is angry with the ending, as we are supposedly meant to be too.
Whedon and Goddard are clearly fed-up with the formulaic nature of the genre and their frustration is directed at not only real-world studio executives but an audience who expected to sit through yet another film they’ve seen a million times before.