Well kids, if you want to know what the 90s were like; The Cabin in the Woods isn’t a bad primer. People had a lot of fun, back in the 90s, with concepts like irony. The TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, became a touchstone for the smart/dumb paradigm, and the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, was revered like a king. Funnily enough, Joss Whedon is the writer of The Cabin in the Woods, so I’m not too surprised that the movie plays like a good episode of Buffy. All the Whedon trademarks are here: sexy girls, smart aleck quips, a hefty dose of meta-fiction, and a splodge of the macabre. The result feels like being pricked by a pair of inverted commas. While it might tickle you with its cleverness; irony never cuts too deep.
Five friends go to stay in a cabin in the woods. They are all young and at least two of them are horny. They drink, they smoke pot; one of the girls makes out with a stuffed wolf’s head. Then zombies attack the cabin. And the friends do their best to survive. Little do they know, their suffering is controlled by a team of scientists. The undead are unleashed at the push of a button. Middle-aged men direct what happens in the cabin. The teens are pawns, compelled to live (and die) as part of a meticulous fantasy. It’s like in horror movies, gasp!, where sexy teens are put to death for our enjoyment! And the men directing the action are like directors, y’know, directing a movie. And the sexy teens are, well, exactly what they appear to be.
I apologise for the sarcasm. But I think Joss Whedon picked a pretty easy target when he decided to write a satire of slasher movies. I’m not saying The Cabin in the Woods isn’t fun, or that anyone involved has done a bad job. But you can’t reinvent a genre by dissecting it, no matter how witty you are with dead bodies. The fact is, unless you’re willing to invest in fear, a horror movie is empty. Fear and dread are the strange rewards of this genre, and you can spot the archetypes and play around with the conventions if you like, but if it doesn’t scare the shit out of people, something is lacking. This movie thrills and excites you while you’re watching, but it doesn’t linger in the mind, potent, like the best bad dreams.
Not that there aren’t incidental pleasures, I admit. The scenes set in the underground control room are full of gallows humour. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford orchestrate the madness with a mordant rapport, taking bets on what kind of monster the luckless teens will summon. I loved the way the title card slams down, blood red, as Whitford whines to Jenkins about his marital problems. Middle-aged frustration provides a wry counterpoint to the bold do-or-die attitude of the teens. Even when Bradley Whitford is eaten by a merman, he’s more resigned to his fate than the kids. Although the scientists are cynical, voyeuristic assholes, it’s hard not to relate to them. The older we get, the more everyone becomes an onlooker.
You don’t necessarily have to enjoy watching young people being slaughtered to get the most out of The Cabin in the Woods, but it is a bit of a gore-hound’s paradise. Whedon and his co-writer/director, Drew Goddard, have a merry ol’ time dispatching their victims, and there is a ghoulish abandon to the violence that goes too far, for the squeamish. The death of one of the girls, in particular, is genre-savvy in being so extreme, but it’s still sleazy, even if the girl is topless as part of a bigger meta-fiction critique. For those who don’t love gore or gratuitous nudity (I grant you, it’s hard to begrudge the latter), Kirsten Connelly is the film’s saving grace. She plays the heroine, a girl who doesn’t have sex or die gruesomely, and who takes the villains to task for their lazy stereotypes and reactionary moralising. By refusing to play her assigned role in the scientist’s evil schemes, she encourages a much wider audience to be less creepy.
The big idea in this film is that all horror movies are a kind of blood sacrifice, and that there’s no real difference between Aztecs and us, except that we’ve seen more movies. Joss Whedon writes as a fan of the genre (he knows the clichés, and the shibboleths) but he’s also conscious of how messed-up the horror genre is, how much it hates women, and endorses male cruelty, how it taps into unresolved cave-person issues about gender identity and sexual personae. The Cabin in the Woods is a form of cognitive therapy for horror fans, using irony as medication. I just wish it wasn’t so anally retentive about the arcane lore of slasher films. I wish Joss Whedon had the courage to be less ironic, and more human.