Written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Directed by Drew Goddard
A Lionsgate Picture
Starring: Kristen Connolly (Dana Polk); Chris Hemsworth (Curt Vaughan); Anna Hutchison (Jules Louden); Fran Kranz (Marty Mikalski); Jesse Williams (Holden McCrea); Richard Jenkins (Gary Sitterson); Bradley Whitford (Steve Hadley); Brian White (Daniel Truman); Amy Acker (Wendy Lin); Tim de Zarn (Mordecai); Jodelle Ferland (Patience Buckner); Sigourney Weaver (The Director)
When The Cabin In The Woods was released in 2012, there was a move by the producers to do something that has only rarely been done (and has been even rarer in the age of the internet and automatic information): the audience and press was encouraged to keep the main plot points of the film to themselves. Hitchcock famously made this request in 1960 with the release of Psycho and found his audience quite willing to keep his secrets from potential viewers. Naturally, nobody likes a film to be spoiled for them and most viewers are admonished to not reveal a film’s ending to others. The type of films that require a special request from the producers for secrecy are films whose plot and structure are a subversion of traditional forms of storytelling; Hitchcock needed Psycho’s big surprise, the murder of Janet Leigh’s character, to be kept a secret for the film to have its full affect on the audience. Knowledge that Leigh’s Marion Crane was not long for the world would have destroyed all the preparation and setup that Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano had labored on. It’s no trick to keep critics from revealing the final half hour of a film in their reviews, but to keep them from revealing the basic plot… Well… ?
Well, it worked. The Cabin In The Woods became a big hit and those who saw it kept mum. More and more curious horror fans were seduced by its secrets and thrilled by its energy, comedy and obvious love and respect for the genre it was taking on; a subset of the “cursed place” genre that took place specifically in isolated cabins far from civilization, where randy kids often went to party on Spring Break. Friday The 13th (1980) was an early harbinger of this genre, but it was Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), that brought it into sharp focus and made it possible for The Cabin In The Woods to exist. Raimi’s film, almost completely on its own, began this subgenre that he immediately capitalized on in Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987) and that Eli Roth would have more fun with in Cabin Fever (2002). By 2012 a precedent had been set; horror fans with any sense of history responded to a title like The Cabin In The Woods, and Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard were ready for them.
As I’ve already stated, The Cabin In The Woods is best experienced with none of its plot points spoiled. Reading further will spoil the film. At this point, I would suggest you skip to tomorrow’s article if you have not yet seen The Cabin In The Woods. You have been forewarned.
Are they gone?
If you’re peeking now, just remember… you were warned.
The Cabin In The Woods opens with a sequence we do not expect to see in a horror film with such a title; the pre-credits sequence features a mostly mundane and slightly comic conversation between two corporate guys, Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins). They talk about Hadley’s wife baby-proofing the house, even though she isn’t pregnant yet, and only on repeat viewings do we hear and recognize bits of conversation that prove to be important later: the chemical department’s responsibilities, the status of other countries’ programs and other technical mumbo-jumbo. In the middle of a pretty inane bit of dialog (at the point at which a viewer might wonder if he’s wondered into the wrong theater), the title THE CABIN IN THE WOODS suddenly flashes on the screen and provides the film’s first shock. There are many more to come.
The film starts to settle into familiar territory by introducing the five characters that will be spending a pleasant weekend in the woods (if they’re lucky, which they won’t be). If we go by looks alone, we’ve seen this cast of characters before: Dana (Kristen Connolly) is the sweet one, her friend Jules (Anna Hutchison) is the blonde party-girl type, her boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth) is the typical jock, Dana’s prospective boyfriend Holden (Jesse Williams) is good-looking and sensitive, and Marty (Fran Kranz) is the stoner/outsider whom the audience wonders what possible connection he can have with the other four. Almost immediately, our expectations of these characters are subverted: Dana has just finished an affair with her teacher, Curt and Jules are both smart and Holden can play football (plus Jules’s hair is newly dyed). Later dialog shows that Marty is an old friend (he even made out with Jules once, which is a bit of a shocker, when they were in high school), and despite his constantly being stoned, he shows a fierce loyalty to his friends (When at the gas station, Mordecai asks Marty, “you sassin’ me, boy,” Marty replies, “You were rude to my friend,” meaning Jules). We only need to get to know these people for five minutes before we realize how much we like them and how much sense their relationships with each other make (unlike say Halloween (1978), where we wonder why Laurie hangs around with Annie and Lynda, who treat her like shit). Only Holden is the wild card, being Curt’s friend and brought along for Dana’s sake, but he proves himself a decent fellow when he alerts Dana to the presence of a two-way mirror in their adjoining rooms before she undresses. We spend enough time with them to almost forget that something strange is going on; they are being observed and, to a certain extent, controlled.
Somewhere in the world (we later find out it is directly underneath the cabin), there is a control room where Hadley, Sitterson and a whole slew of technicians are watching the events in the cabin through hidden cameras and are able to control the proceedings. One of the amazing things about the film is how easily the technicians can steer the fate of our heroes: drugged beer and hair dye gets Curt and Jules conforming more to their chosen stereotypes (her libido is heightened and Curt starts acting like a dumb jock, calling Holden an “egghead” when he, himself, is a sociology major). Even Dana starts falling into the trap, nearly telling Holden that she’s a virgin when the dialog in her apartment confirmed she is nothing of the sort (“We work with what we have,” explains The Director (Sigourney Weaver) at the end of the film). Gases and fumes causes them to make the wrong decisions (“We need to split up,” Curt says after he has just told everyone to stick together, confusing Marty) and a tiny electric shock forces Dana to drop the knife that she’d just wielded against a zombie, again forcing her to conform to a stereotype (“The-Girl-Who-Drops-The-Weapon-Because-She-Thinks-She’s-Killed-The-Killer-But-She-Really-Hasn’t”). We marvel at the imagination that went into the creation of it all. If there is any reason why we may not be on the kids’ side (and, trust me, we are), it’s simply because we’re fascinated by that control room and want to see what else Hadley and Sitterson can do.
On the question of sympathies, there certainly isn’t much to be spared for Hadley, Sitterson or any of their colleagues. Sure, they’re fun to watch and Whitford and Jenkins do well with the funny dialog they’re given, which punctures holes in the horror film clichés that we all know so well better than any of the Scream movies do (my favorite is their phone conversation with “the harbinger,” who rails in biblical prose until he realizes that he’s on speakerphone). They seem like a couple of normal, everyday guys with families at home and a job to do, unpleasant as it may be. But as the film moves forward, screenwriters Goddard and Whedon hammer home that a job well done for these two guys comes at a horrible price (and an even worse price if they screw it all up). Early in the film, the two of them head a betting pool to see which monsters the kids will let loose on themselves. It’s a funny sequence, but in hindsight it is horrifying how blasé everyone is to this immoral duty that they have to perform (Truman (Brian White), the new security guard, is the only one who chooses not to participate in the fun, not that this will help him in the end). There’s a fine line between monitoring the action in order to make sure everything goes smoothly and wanton voyeurism, as we see when Curt and Jules get ready for sex and the entire male population of the facility comes to watch. Sure, Hadley chases them all out (after a couple of minutes), but mostly so he and Sitterson can watch Jules disrobe in private. But the most disturbing scene is when the entire facility gathers in the control room to celebrate a job well done while Dana, apparently the only one of the kids left, is beaten within an inch of her life by a zombie. For once, nobody is watching the monitor; there’s laughter, music and tequila all around while, in the background, Dana is thrown around the dock like a broken ragdoll until she vomits blood. True, we haven’t learned yet what was at stake, but at this point, the viewer wants no part of these people and their operation. It is with great satisfaction that the festivities come to a halt when it is discovered that Marty is still alive.
Probably the greatest cliché-bust of the film is casting Marty, the stoner and comic-relief (who wields a bong that collapses into a coffee mug), as the male hero of the final third of the film. Together, Dana and Marty make their way into the facility, discovering the monsters that could’ve been their fate in they had chosen differently (but how could they have; this genre almost demands the finding of a creepy book that must foolishly be read aloud). When security guards close in on the pair, Dana pushes a big red button on a control panel (who the Hell would design such a thing) that lets all the horrors loose and then the fun really begins. The slaughter of the facility staff is hilarious, especially considering that the viewer was so disgusted by their celebration while Dana was getting beaten. Hadley even gets his wish of seeing a Merman (UP CLOSE). And all that is left is the explanation, courtesy of a classy cameo by Sigourney Weaver: Lovecraftian Gods under the Earth need to be appeased with a yearly sacrifice to keep them from decimating the world. All it will take is Marty’s death and the world is saved. So what’s Dana, armed with a gun, going to do?
The very question I posited at the end of my review of Night Of The Living Dead is considered and effectively answered in The Cabin In The Woods; any society that sentences young innocent people to death (including the failed attempt on the Japanese children witnessed earlier) every year since the dawn of man has no right to exist. It is Shirley Jackson’s endgame in The Lottery (1948), and all the disgust it evokes, exponentially realized. Human society is a lie, building its miracles on a foundation of blood and injustice. Ultimately, we are left with Dana and Marty sharing a joint and waiting for the end to come, Dana admitting that she probably wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to shoot Marty even if the werewolf hadn’t attacked her. These two, and their three friends who didn’t make it this far, are the good people; instead of an abstract idea like “the good of planet” (which goes merrily along without realizing that atrocities are being committed to keep them safe), Dana and Marty cling to each other, and the solidness of their friendship (and how cool it would’ve been to have seen evil giant gods decimate the planet). When that gigantic arm explodes out of the floor and raises its massive hand into the night sky, it isn’t the planet we think about, it is Dana and Marty and their hands clutched together as they meet their fate. The world may be over, but at least we got to spend its last three minutes with two people that we really really liked.
And didn’t you think that unicorn spearing that guy was cool? Talk about a great weekend!