I was selected to be the Fool in a ritual sacrifice by a secret government cabal that is part of an international effort to satisfy the requirements of ancient gods in exchange for not rising and destroying the world. After escaping death, I reconnected with the Virgin, when the leader of the government project explained the history and mechanisms of the sacrifice, including the fact that my death is necessary. Instead of allowing the Virgin to kill me, per ritual, I allowed her to be bitten by a loosed werewolf, threatening the ritual as well as her life, and even though my own demise is assured along with hers and the world’s by not submitting to the sacrifice, I still do not intend to allow myself to die. Am I the Asshole for refusing to be killed even though there’s no way I will live and everyone else will die with me?
2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, a very Buffy-ish collaboration between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel colleagues Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, as well as Goddard’s directorial debut, multitasks to the extreme, offering audiences the buffet choices of: winking skewer of horror genre norms, a deft workplace comedy, an unironically successful slasher on its own merits, and possibly Being Gen X in horror movie form. By 2012, of course, meta-horror parody and satire was well worn (and well-received) enough with movies like [clears throat] Jason X (2001), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010), and of course, the entire freaking Scream series (1996-wait a new one is supposed to come out in 2021?!) that nothing The Cabin in the Woods proposed should have been all that radical or even interesting. Hell, even the VOD ashcan Hellraiser entry Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005) beat them to the punch. And yet, even with a well-worn format sending up and unpacking a well-worn format, The Cabin in the Woods delivered something scary, fresh, and true.
The premise is every slasher premise, with a twist. A group of college friends go to a remote, yes, cabin in the woods for a weekend getaway. The group includes a preexisting couple, Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and Jules (Anna Hutchison), a sort-of blind dating couple with authentic chemistry, Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Holden (Jesse Williams), and their stoner fifth wheel Marty (Fran Kranz) because. The twist is that in addition to being facially slasher film tropes, they have been and are being strategically manipulated into being slasher film tropes by a secret government project. The project’s aim is to successfully sacrifice a chosen, chemically-addled, and carefully stage-managed group to the satisfaction of unseen Elder God-type terrors, the Ancient Ones. The group themselves must embody the classic American horror tropes of the Whore, the Athlete, the Scholar, the Fool, and the Virgin, and in accordance with slasher tropes, the Virgin, or the Final Girl, can either die or survive, but if she dies, she must be the last to die. And everybody else, of course, must die.
Every year, several regions around the world concomitantly run their own sacrificial lambs through their own slaughterhouses that hew to their own culture’s dominant horror tropes, although only one region needs to be successful to slake the thirst of the ancient abominations. In the American experiment, the cabin includes a creepy basement full of tokens that are tied to, again, specific monsters keying into popular horror tropes, and whichever one the group of unlucky chosen latches onto first, be it zombies, mermen, or Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain, that horror will hunt them down and kill them. Still with me? So an infinite variety of all your horror favorites is totally possible, in theory, and the secret government project even has a betting pool on the monster of the year. In The Cabin in the Woods, the Virgin, Dana, opens the grotesque diary of Patience Buckner, the daughter of a pain-worshipping clan of backwoods zombies, which sets the grotesque undead family with their barbarous implements and lust for pain onto the kids, and if that weren’t enough, our friends in the secret government project will be stacking the deck for the monsters as much as possible, cutting off escape routes, pumping them full of chemicals to make them horny and stupid, and even putting invisible force shields around the cabin, should they start thinking too outside the box. Insert the government can’t even deliver the mail joke here.
The thing about The Cabin in the Woods that polarizes audiences goes to its satirical, almost flippant tone. Unlike, say, Scream, where the satire is more like the frosting on the cake, here, the satire is the flour. It is the Duncan Hines box mix. You just don’t have much movie, horror or otherwise, without it. You get this mainly from the workplace comedy that pivots around the gooey slasher movie center with the inside look at the secret government project. Honestly, these are some of my favorite bits and infinitely more memorable than the also-excellent gore scenes with the pain-worshipping redneck zombie family hunting down our sacrifices. I mean, as a big Dr. Loomis fan, the scene where they make fun of Mordecai, the crazy foreboding guy that the sacrifices have to choose to ignore, by putting his ravings on speakerphone just makes me so happy. And I could watch a series of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford sniping with Amy Acker about departmental jurisdictions and bureaucracy while weaponizing a monster of the week against college kids. Green light that, Netflix. But with that stubborn tendency comedy has to tell the truth, the way that the annual slaughterhouse is normalized for the workers is both repellent and familiar. For them, the arrangement with the Ancient Ones is inviolable, so of course, they become inured to the point of making jokes and having a betting pool and heckling Japanese elementary school girls on a monitor as they fight for their lives. It makes for jarring transitions, no doubt, and this sense throughout the film that rules are being broken, but neither of those elements actually hurt the film’s scares. If anything, watching our white collar, anodyne government employees watch a girl be hunted by a decomposing redneck wielding a bear trap like a flail and cheer for the zombie…the depiction of desensitization without commentary just gives it extra zazz to me.
What is really interesting to me about The Cabin in the Woods though is neither its sneaky social commentary nor its loving assemblage of genre touchstones and tropes. I mean, I do enjoy the trope basement, I do, but to some extent, the trivia of unused monsters becomes the cluttered decor of a TGI Friday’s. It’s all just stapled to the walls with no real story commitment, which is fun, but let’s not make it more than it is. Fornicus isn’t a monster; he’s a gag, or an Easter egg at best.
What’s really interesting is what happens when Marty survives. As the Fool, Marty also slots in pretty well as the classic Joss Whedon Marty Stu character — if you will, the Xander of the group. He’s not attached to anyone, but he’s watching everyone and everything. He’s the first to nope out because he’s the first to realize what’s really going on. He’s only armed with the ready quip and the nervous joke, but he’ll be there when the credits roll, somehow, because the ready quip and the nervous joke are the sine qua non of Joss Whedon’s writing. Everything else can and must go, but we have to have some snark to fade out.
Also, much like Xander, Marty is kind of a selfish asshole when the plot needs him to be.* And I’m not honestly sure whether we’re meant to think he is or not by the end. His decision not only to not go quietly into that good night, but let his friend get werewolf chomped to avert it, seems like a pretty easy ethics problem to me. But I do suspect, if only by virtue of the long debate with the Project Director (Sigourney Weaver nuking that cameo from orbit) of the virtues of the government project and whether it’s worth dying for, that Joss and Drew think it’s a much closer call than most people who watch the movie will. The idea that humanity should die because the way humanity is managing to survive, i.e. through human sacrifice, is inhuman would fit pretty well to a Facebook meme. If it can be destroyed by not placating an Ancient Eldritch Horror, it deserves to be destroyed by not placating an Ancient Eldritch Horror. You don’t have to try very hard to transfer the principle to a number of social problems that cry out for massive structural changes that never find their season in our world. And I suppose that’s what really sticks in my personal craw about Marty and Dana’s eventual non-stand Last Stand; it sort of feels like a protest vote in 2016.
Not everything about The Cabin in the Woods ages well, and I don’t just mean the big CGI monster effects investment in the denouement. Some of the humor is a little cringey in its pre-#metooness, and again, I’m not sure how compelling its argument to let an unjust world burn is now that our unjust world is constantly on fire. But putting aside the success of its horror sequences, for all the meta humor lavished on the horror genre and the slasher subgenre in the last — checks calendar, grabs inhaler — two decades, Cabin is unique and still very relevant eight years down the line because of all those films, it’s the only one that really stops to ask, “Am I the asshole?” Vis a vis the project personnel, the cold, professional Director, the stupid kid who just wants to live. And as it happens, all the way down the line, the answer is yes.
*No, I never will get over Xander lying to Buffy about Angel’s soul. NEVER GET OVER IT. COME HERE, I’LL RIP OUT YOUR OTHER EYE, YOU SELF-RIGHTEOUS DICK.
Angela really thinks the character of Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a total dick.
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