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Review: Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods”

The Cabin in the Woods is a thorough deconstruction of the horror genre that aims to push it forward
 "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. 
Despite knowing what Whedon and Goddard can do together, the trailer made me skeptical of this movie (if it is as savvy as this review indicates, it makes sense that someone attempting to sell the picture as an easily digestible something would have a difficult time), but this review does buoy my hopes and interest.
I would definitely say that Goddard and Whedon do not approach the genre with more intelligence and wit than Haneke, whom does verge on satire with his “Funny Games,” as his approach emphasizes narrative construction and audience participation, which allow for real moments of criticism about our interaction with the genre, as the main questions we constantly ask are “why?” (Why is this happening? Why to these people? Why am I not reacting the way I should be? Why is it taking longer than expected?) These questions are quite important when contextualizing the concept of satire, as these questions of our participation will further improve our concepts of what horror really is, and how it functions for us within a cinematic context. The slow and “cold” push through the scenes of “Funny Games,” works against genre participation so that we are aware of when questions are being asked (questions about viewer expectations, assumptions and their fulfillment, or over fulfillment) are all effectively accessed because of this “cold,” and Brechtian approach. Without this divorced engagement, the recognition of the film’s construction wouldn’t be so apparent for many viewers. While there is legitimacy in the argument that his work is not constantly entertaining (as it works against the arguments he’s making) and perhaps there is some condescension with Haneke, his is more consistently asking questions, where as Goddard and Whedon fall too much into a love letter to the genre. Where Haneke weighs in less through “entertainment,” we question the legitimacy of our participation more, where as the “playfulness,” of Goddard and Whedon seemed overly zealous, so much that their smart genre-context does not make up for little dissection of the genre. While the context of Cabin reorients viewers to think of the genre within the realm of classic interaction with “the gods,” it does not necessarily question the cliches and tropes “every turn,” in fact it only poses a question of the genre once, when we recognize this reorientation. After this moment occurs, the audience must sit through the simple execution of traditional (modern) cliches and tropes. While it is suggested that Cabin’s strength is in “satire,” it does perhaps satire characters of genre, but the re-contextualization of the narrative or the plentitude of the film’s concluding villains does not satire the genre, in so much as play out genre expectations to an excessive degree. Characters must still face fears that represent their own inner turmoils with weapons/tools that metaphorically represent their personal strengths of identity, but it does not make us (the audience) question their purpose, nor their ultimate contribution to our comprehension and understanding of genre tropes to improve our viewing habits, or for makers to improve their approach. When it comes to genre satire that is entertaining (and humanizing), it seems to me that Kevin Williamson’s screenplay for Scream 4 was more intelligent. Williamson’s analysis included characters that were depictions of contemporary societal allegories, rather than just aged genre tropes. Societal allegories, are essentially, what become the archetypes that we (and Whedon) simply accept overtime. Without real updates, the likes that Williamson has been able to achieve, the genre becomes bogged down in rehash, non-fulfillment and little expansion of expectations. What’s of even more value within Scream 4 is that the villain in the end is a result of a direct analysis of viewership participation, perhaps more so than either Haneke’s “Funny Games,” or Goddard’s “Cabin.” In the end, I am not convinced that Whedon’s achieved the goal of his remark, as it seems he’s simply re-ignited the flame of surface level meta-textuality, rather than genre-ending criticism.
Thanks for the great comment! I don’t disagree with any of your points, though I’m skeptical of this assertion: “but it does not make us (the audience) question their purpose”, but for the most part I actually concur. I haven’t seen Scream 4 recently enough to consider it for comparison, though. Where my perspective differs it seems is that I commend the way Cabin functions simultaneously as love letter and deconstruction, where Funny Games exists only as indictment. For the record, I actually like Funny Games, but without any enthusiasm. Its calculations leave me little room to breathe, no matter how astute they are. Lets not forget that Cabin pays homage to, or rips off, the title sequence from Funny Games (something I perhaps should have mentioned).
Yes, Adam, After I had made my comment, I was thinking about the moments in Cabin that did effectively allow for self-observation and engagement, essentially when the behind-the-scene “workings” emphasized it’s manufacture, and I agree that this can occur while maintaing an entertaining work as a love letter, although I feel that love-letter approach has a tendency of taking away from moments that might be more effectively dis-engaging, when it comes to horror works. And by my comment of not questioning the purpose of the characters, I would say the film does so within the context of a film and it’s manufacture, but much less the participation of the audience. This is perhaps, what I’m most disappointed with in “Cabin,” as I was expecting this to be addressed. With the “villains” essentially framed as unimaginable “gods” or a team of engineers that craft this experience, there lies no responsibility in part of those that only watch, which is where I feel the moral balance could be. This is why I’m suggesting the audience is not effectively questioning the purpose of these events in relation to themselves. If these events must occur because of great “gods” of the arts, or because manufacturers cannot be stopped, then I cannot accept the only resolution to be enjoyment through spectatorship of deaths. This is what seems to be in conflict with what I’m sensing as Whedon’s intentions when speaking of humanism. I’m not sure I really see the fate of these characters in relation to audience responsibility as achieving these goals (but please, fight me on this, because I want to see it!)
After posting in a recent forum regarding this film, I hopped over here to read your review. I absolutely agree with all your points, specifically the playfulness and compassion evident in this film. I never felt the film’s commentary was smug.
Another fair point, Sunrise, but for me, the engineers are not exclusive from the audience. By this I mean, that even though they are manipulating the situation, they are also complacent viewers of what’s happening. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins’ characters behaviour is linked to the voyeurism of the audience. They joke about what’s happening, take pleasure in how it unfolds, and encourage gratuity—and it all takes place on screens in front of them. While the film is purposefully light on criticizing the viewer’s enjoyment of horror films (another thing I applaud), it is accusing the audience of helping perpetuate immoral and artless aspects of the genre (violent punishment of young people, namely) through complacent participation.
Nice review, Adam. I really enjoyed the film as a lifelong horror consumer. We are the Old Gods—rebelling if the formula isn’t adhered to. Fun, funny, and thought-provoking.
Wonderful review! This film made me all warm and fuzzy inside.
Thanks gentlemen!
Glad to see the film is being received warmly
I wonder, Adam, what is your take on the change that Whedon’s humanism experiences in the film: the refusal of self-sacrifice that would prevent the Apocalypse? Buffy wouldn’t think twice! :) Whedon-verse has been supported by characters willing to throw themselves into the sacrificial pyre. What happens here you think? (Love the review, btw!)
I think the context is too different for a 1:1 comparison between characters in Buffy and characters in Cabin. I look at the refusal of self-sacrifice within the context of Cabin as a form of rebellion against the mechanics of the genre (hence, the empowerment of the characters). Ultimately, they stand up against “the powers that be” that have cruelly victimized them. Also, consider that a certain slayer’s sacrifice, and the refusal of sacrifice here, are both in defiance of God.
Good review. I love that there is so much to say about this film, and so many different opinions. If you’re interested, I’ve blogged about the similarites between Cabin in the Woods and Hunger Games, and the role paranoia plays in both:

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