(As a rule, I don’t care much about spoilers. I think it’s a misnomer. Does knowing what happens really “spoil” or ruin a movie? I don’t think so. I enjoy things just as much if I already know the ending as if I don’t. But there are some things I prefer to go into reasonably blind, The Cabin In The Woods being one of them. So consider yourself warned. It’s impossible to say much about this movie without giving away a few things, though I will still attempt to be vague enough to not totally spell it all out — though I’m not convinced that would make this particular movie any less enjoyable.)
Anyway. Joss Whedon is a man we’re all hearing a lot about lately (particularly on this here blog — obligatory “Best of Buffy“ plug!). He’s got one of the most anticipated films of the summer coming very soon, and here to whet our appetites is The Cabin In The Woods, which he produced and co-wrote with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel writer Drew Goddard, who also directs. So, yes. The Cabin In The Woods is a very “Joss Whedon” movie on pretty much every level.
What does that mean? Well, like nearly everything Whedon has done, it’s very insular — he’s good to his fans. The more familiar you are with other Whedon fare, the more you’ll feel right at home in The Cabin In The Woods. Casual horror fans who aren’t so familiar with other Whedon properties, on the other hand, are likely to have their minds blown by The Cabin In The Woods, because likely, they’ll have seen nothing like it before. Most moviegoers are merely accustomed to watching the standard horror schlock Whedon has spent much of his career dissecting and reassembling. For them, The Cabin In The Woods may be a huge surprise, even a revelation. “Hey — I didn’t know movies could be clever!” the average moviegoer is likely to say.
For the rest of us, it’s like sitting in front of the TV again. Curled up in this snarky, bloody, zombie-laden Cabin In The Woods, we’re amongst friends.
The Cabin In The Woods features once and future Whedon alumni from Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, The Avengers, and even a major one from the Whedon-penned Alien: Resurrection. (I didn’t catch any from Firefly, but it wouldn’t surprise me). It also borrows the character archetypes, tone, themes, quippiness, and the like from those properties. Particularly familiar is the notion of an evil government/corporate organization, which we have seen in the Initiative, Wolfram & Hart, and the Dollhouse. That’s not even a spoiler — this script shows its hand in the very first scene. I expected it to start with the kids and gradually pull back and reveal something larger at work, but The Cabin In The Woods never makes any pretense of being a standard horror movie.
The film opens with some Whedonesque (and also, sort of Sorkin-like, thanks to Bradley Whitford) banter that announces to its audience: “We’re going to be clever here, if that’s all right with you. If not, please exit this theater and see Wrath Of The Titans instead.” It follows five twentysomething cliches as they head off to visit the titular cabin, apparently owned by a distant cousin. They have an alarming encounter with a grizzled, spit-happy gas station attendant, then head on their merry way. And if this sounds like a rather lackluster set-up, it’s meant to.
The Cabin In The Woods puts five nubile college kids in a contrived situation and then wonders, “What if there was a reason they all made such bonehead choices?” It’s a pretty brilliant conceit for a movie, and especially with some of the more subtle touches, it’s quite shrewd. (The “blonde” has only just dyed her hair; the always-mistaken idea to “split up” is planted in their heads after a more logical initial plan; it is suggested that chemicals may be behind the “jock” acting extra jock-y and the “slut” going ultra-slutty.) Seemingly no cliche is left un-turned-on-its-head, which is precisely what we expect from Joss Whedon. (Yes, I’m going to continue to ignore the fact that this was co-written and directed by Drew Goddard, not Joss Whedon himself, as everyone else is. His fingerprints are all over this.) Throughout, we cut back to a control room where Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and Amy Acker feed us clues about what’s really happening and why. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say it’s very, very Joss Whedon.
Despite all that meta stuff, though, the first half does build a degree of genuine tension — probably because anyone familiar with Whedon’s stuff knows that he likes to kill people off in unexpected moments. (Especially likable characters who, by standard horror rules, “should” make it out alive.) The core cast, comprised of Kristen Connolly, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz, Anna Hutchison, and Chris or Liam Hemsworth (honestly, who can tell the difference?), has decent chemistry and enough snappy dialogue to keep us engaged no matter what they’re doing. In fact, the film’s best moments are its most random, disconnected ones — there’s a comedic gem when the “hot blonde” makes out with a wolf’s head that you expect to jump alive at any moment. (Quibble time: the film spends a fair amount of time setting up a one-way mirror that it does nothing with; surely Goddard could have done something much more fun with this?)
From there, The Cabin In The Woods sets up and then quickly knocks down a number of dopey tropes. One of the best is the spooky cellar, which sets up not just the squad of zombies that eventually hunts down our heroes, but also a few dozen other horrors that could have resulted had they chosen to play with something else instead. (The reactions from the control room are priceless.) And frankly, I might have rather seen the creepy-mask people movie or the fucked up ballerina movie rather than another zombie flick, but… I guess that’s the point. Let’s just say we all get our druthers in the end.
The zombie-chase stuff breezes by; what takes 90 minutes in any standard movie is condensed into about 30 here. (Another 10 might have helped this part of the film feel more substantial.) Then there’s a very dark and nihilistic moment at what you might consider the end of Act II, with the heroine quite likely about to come to a bloody finish while a party rages in the control room. We wonder if the movie will end here, on this sour note, so willfully anticlimactic. I was reminded of The Hunger Games, which parallels The Cabin In The Woods in a number of ways — a selected group of youths is manipulated, toyed with, and painfully murdered for a greater political “good,” and we move back and forth between their plight and their tormenters in the control room, popping big dogs or zombies out of the ground with the push of a button. The Cabin In The Woods‘ take is darker, obviously, and unlike most other Whedon stories, heroism has nothing to do with it.
After a certain point in this movie, there’s no one to root for — not the “final girl,” not the comic relief stoner, not even the survival of the human race itself. That’s less a flaw of the screenplay than an intentional statement, but it’s not one we’re used to from the Mutant Enemy team, and it’s slightly jarring. The film ends as an indictment of rote teen slasher flicks and the people who watch them; if we so enjoy watching cardboard people get sliced, diced, and decapitated, then don’t we all deserve the same fate? Why should these characters save us, if given the chance, when we have delighted in their misery and punishment? It’s a big “fuck you” to anyone who ever watched more than one Saw movie.
And that’s fine, I guess. Clever, yes — but perhaps also a dismaying for Whedon fans who are used to mocking our cake and eating it, too. For all Whedon’s irony and genre mish-mashiness, he’s never been cynical. His stories work just as well within the confines of their genre as they do at critiquing them. You’re simultaneously invested in the stories and characters and rolling your eyes at the ridiculousness of it all. Until now.
So that’s the twist for Whedon fans — there’s no light at the end of this tunnel. No silver lining. And I’m not sure if it’s a flaw in casting or an intentional choice, but I wasn’t invested or even all that interested in this Whedon heroine, even on the most basic level. (Cast members killed off earlier are more compelling, but anyone surprised by the last two members of this group to survive clearly hasn’t been watching their Buffy.) Whedon is known for creating lovable characters, but here it feels like he may have drawn from the same well one too many times. There are brief moments when these characters defy our expectations and come alive, but they’re too few and far between; for all its meta-commentary, The Cabin In The Woods shares one drawback with all the lesser movies it mocks — we don’t so much care what happens to any of these people. I can’t help but think this might have been a better movie if we did, something to really rival Buffy and the best of Joss Whedon.
Still, it’s great fun to see the Whedon sensibility applied to the big screen; The Cabin In The Woods feels like a big ol’ TV episode, in part because it takes narrative risks you just don’t see in cinema these days. The third act is totally go-for-broke bonkers, even if it won’t feel 100% fresh to anyone who’s watched a Whedon show regularly. (In particular, the almost-finale of Buffy‘s fourth season, “Primeval,” is recreated almost verbatim.) Here, Whedon and Goddard are free from the restrictions of TV and let the blood and gore fly free, particularly in the end; we don’t need to return to these characters week after week, so they’re free to dispatch of them as needed. By this point, The Cabin In The Woods has long since ceased being scary and is just a darkly comic thrill ride — a horror buff’s wet dream. For a Joss Whedon fan, it straddles the line of self-parody, like a Scary Movie. The Cabin In The Woods could easily be called Joss Whedon Movie. (By the end, I really wouldn’t have been surprised to see a certain vampire slayer thrown into the mix.)
So I really did enjoy The Cabin In The Woods, but I also wish it followed other Whedon entertainments in going for the heart as well as the head. I wouldn’t say it’s “too clever,” but it’s not a movie that’s likely to make you feel anything but nervous and then a bit giddy. Will non-Whedon fans be able to buy into this? Hard to say. Maybe. To date, the closest the average moviegoer has gotten to this level of meta-horror is probably the Scream franchise, but that operates on a different, slightly more accessible level. (It’s not really worth comparing them, since Scream is a straighter genre exercise. However, it’s fun to note that Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson both rose to fame at the same time for a similar, self-aware writing style; now that Whedon is doing the meta-horror movie, Williamson is off doing a vampire series.)
Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting The Cabin In The Woods to go nearly as far as it does in its Joss Whedon-ness. I expected a few smart twists, clever kills, and witty dialogue, but not a unicorn. Instead, I got something of a bloody valentine to Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse fans, a middle finger raised to slasher flicks that dispense of their nubile casts willy-nilly without thinking about the larger message. There’s no question that The Cabin In The Woods is Joss Whedon’s, ultimately — but with one crucial missing ingredient. A reason to care what happens.
Buffy would be pissed.