"The horror film to end all horror films."—Joss Whedon
The man wasn’t lying. It didn’t seem all that likely that he could deliver on that tongue-in-cheek statement, but Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the genre is so complete and sophisticated, and the ending of The Cabin in the Woods literally shakes the foundation of the “horror film”—just before annihilating it altogether. Once the film approaches its conclusion, and the mechanics of the horror genre that have been manipulating the cabin in the woods have all been made explicit, the cine-commentary matches/exceeds that of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and a with sense of humor intact (“Funnier Games”). The key difference is that Goddard and Whedon do it with intelligence, wit and compassion in equal measure. The film is not condescending to its audience, but rather counts on their own knowledge, and, refreshingly, on their own playfulness. It would seem that Haneke would condemn the shameless voyeurism of the horror-viewer, whereas the filmmakers behind The Cabin in the Woods celebrate the fun of horror films while still indicting its more vapid sadistic tendencies seen in recent years. One senses a love and respect for humanity beaming through the final moments of Cabin, rather than the coldness Haneke purposefully substitutes for sincerity, in order to distance himself from his subject, even as he falls prey to the same dynamic between torturer, tortured, and viewer, that he seeks to chastise. Without the same deliberate “arthouse” tactics, Goddard and Whedon are self-reflexive at every turn, questioning the clichés and tropes the genre is built on. And they have so much fun doing it.
The film’s one central shortcoming may be its inability to work as a horror film itself. Goddard has a visual intelligence—in one sequence, he emulates J-Horror with smashing results—and successfully generates suspense, but the tension that drives the film comes from the mystery's unfolding. Cabin's strength is in its satire, and the film is too funny, too often, for its supposed scares to operate successfully. Nevertheless, if we can count it somewhere among horror films for categorical purposes it joins a shortlist of significant contemporary works in American cinema. Only Rob Zombie comes to mind (though Ti West has his supporters), whose recent Halloween films have challenged the slasher genre with doses of humanism, grotesque aesthetic beauty, and a punishing brutality not meant to satisfy sadistic desires. The inner-workings of the “horror film” are actually built into Cabin's narrative. In a secret facility, two normal looking men-in-ties, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, are working at some sort of control panel. They have access to actors, cameras, monsters, etc. Anything they need to reach their goal of having five twentysomethings meet their end in a cabin in the woods. These unsuspecting young people are not only lured and trapped but actually altered so as to become the stereotypes deemed necessary by the horror genre. They are stripped of their personalities, uniqueness and intelligence, which are replaced by archetypal models of “the slut”, “the athlete”, “the fool (stoner)”, “the scholar”, and, of course, “the virgin”. The so-called "slut" is, unbeknownst to her, forced to dye her hair blonde before the cabin excursion begins. The “athlete” is actually a sociology major dumbed down and costumed in a letterman jacket. The virgin is not so much a virgin, but as “The Director” (an alluring allusion, I realize) will elaborate near the film’s closing, those pulling the strings “work with what they have”. The five young people are afforded some freedom however. They unknowingly select what will kill them. Meanwhile, back at the facility, co-workers take bets on what it will be. Bradley Whitford's character hopes that it will be a Merman that will cruelly dispose of the victims. On multiple screens, these men observe as each character is killed, almost bored with what to them seems a merciless necessity.
The central point is simple: the convention of stereotyped youth who must be punished is an inadequate, expired crutch that the horror film rests on. Thoughtless human representation is not a prerequisite for the horror film, but a nasty habit. It isn’t so much the violence itself but the reduction of young people to immoral victims: toys to play with. As Whedon criticized: “I've been seeing a lot of horror movies that are torture-porn, where kids we don’t care about are mutilated for hours, and I just cannot abide them…It’s [Cabin] an antidote to that very kind of film, the horror movie with the expendable human beings in it. Because I don’t believe any human beings are.” It’s the same sort of inspiration that drove him to create Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the blonde girl who is chased into an alley by the bad guy can turn around and fight back. Whedon’s humanism and his reverence for horror movies have made for a winning cocktail in television, and now, cinema.
The film’s own mythology and accompanying exposition take over the end of the film, cementing its ideas by assembling a cheesy, unsustainable concept that, quite literally, collapses on itself. The argument is that it is at once time to evolve and to get back to some roots—Goddard and Whedon cite the good name of John Carpenter when it comes to their ideal. The dehumanizing, static state of the horror genre is tired and it’s time to move on. In their final exchange, the two most charming characters seem to have moved on already, even before the credits roll. The world is going to end and so is the movie, but it’s time for things to get better. The empowerment of the genre does not negate the empowerment of its characters.