I’m not the biggest fan of either of the big names behind The Cabin in the Woods (TCW) – Whedon or Goddard. And while this is not a perfect film, it doesn’t really strive to be. What TCW does, and does well, is make various commentaries on the genre and those involved with it, and go more or less bananas for 75% of its running time.
Quick synopsis: your standard (but not really so standard) group of guys and gals head out to a cabin in the woods. Before their departure and throughout the film we cross-cut to a very white, very sleek, control room where Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), two short-sleeved-collared-shirt-wearing IT-looking guys, prepare for some sort of adventure involving said guys and gals to begin. It’s apparent from the very opening that this control room does in fact directly control and impact the goings-on at the cabin in the woods.
The first remarkable thing about TCW is that it tips its hand in the first 10 minutes. Any astute viewer should be able to figure out the basic conceit right away, and the really careful one may be able to read between the lines a little more and get to the end long before the actual celluloid does. Yet…it still works. This is one of the most impressive things in screenwriting – tell your audience what’s going to happen and keep them in their seats because what’s happening is a) presented in a visually interesting way, b) still contains enough basic twists to keep the inevitable at arm’s length, and c) uses enough basic film language to keep scares and laughs coming frequently. TCW does all of these.
The group that heads to the woods is made up of Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Marty (Fran Kanz), and Holden (Jesse Williams). On first introduction everyone’s stereotypical enough: Dana dances around in her underwear. Curt and Holden wear Varsity Football jackets. Blonde-haired Jules tells Dana to ditch her textbook and replace it with a bikini. Marty shows up smoking a huge bong.
But, as the entire film will have you know, nothing is what it seems. Jules only recently dyed her hair in order to become your classic “dumb blonde.” Curt is on full academic scholarship. Marty might always be high and straight out of Scooby-Doo, but he actually does know what’s going on. Holden has a heart of gold and Dana maybe isn’t quite the classic nerd-virgin we’re all used to. It’s only until they hit the cabin that they start fulfilling their stereotype potential. Early lesson from these counter character-introductions: horror film takes from its stock of stereotypes. To be horror, you need to be the stereotype. Why? Because the audience expects it.
Which brings us to another huge point of TCW: the audience. Be warned. I’m about to his some SPOILERS:
There are at least three audiences in TCW. First, there’s us. Me and you in the theater. After that is Sitterson, Hadley and company in the control room, watching on various monitors as the kids go to the cabin, get drunk and high…and get killed. And last, is the unknown audience. The one only mentioned in passing in the first 60 minutes of the film. The audience for whom this entire show is being put on.
So why is this important? Well for one, there’s a lot of subtextual talk about bloodlust and sexual fulfillment. ‘Why do you have to wait for her to take off her shirt,’ says our token black character Truman (Brian White). Because, replies Hadley at the controls, we’ve got an audience and it’s what they want. He’s referring, of course, to those other “entities” in the movie who are watching the goings-on at the cabin…not to us…right?
And when the control room is almost done its job and all the various departments – electrical, maintenance, accounting – gather with tequila and beers to celebrate another accomplished slaughter? When they laugh and drink while Dana pukes blood on the screen in the background? They’re just enjoying themselves, right? They’re not, you know, a stand-in for us, right?
The point is pretty obvious: the three audiences in here are one. We have no pity for the stock stereotypes because they’re just that. In the same way that the world within TCW threatens to end if the unseen clients don’t get the requisite amount of blood and sex, we too can end that world…by switching the channel, by turning the DVD off, by not buying a movie ticket in the first place.
Sitterson and Hadley are more than audience though, they’re pushing literal buttons and pulling literal switches. They’re at the controls. Could their names perhaps be Whedon and Goddard?
The point of the film is really this: horror is tired and old. Look at what we need to do to get our audiences into it. We must have the blonde and the jock, the druggie and the sensitive girl who probably won’t die. We have to have a pre-determined set of monsters and villains ready to go. Everyone knows what to expect – torture, death, things jumping out – but they’ll watch anyway. It’s a pathetic show on the audience’s part, really. Don’t you want to see something original? If not, well then the world’s (this one, at least) going to end.
That’s the true originality in TCW. It’s overlying narrative concept is too close to Cube and a slew of others to stand alone, but thanks to a sharp commentary, some good one-liners, the greatest motorcycle crash I’ve seen in a long, long time, and general hilarity at the end, it really works.