August 20, 2012 by Steven
Joss Whedon. Just mentioning his name will start an argument on the internet. Say his name twice and it brings rumors of some yet-unannounced brilliance that he may yet unveil. Say it three times and something gets cancelled. Say it four times and you might have a stutter or something.
In recent months a man best known for his viciously loyal cult following has found record-breaking mainstream success with the release of The Avengers. Long-time fans roll their eyes as people who couldn’t tell Buffy Summers from Shepherd Book are now excited about upcoming Joss Whedon projects. New fans speculate about the fate of their favorite superhero while True Whedonites wonder if this will affect the release of Dr. Horrible 2.
In all the hype and hysteria radiating from The Avengers, it’s very easy to forget about a little gem that Whedon managed to sneak out before the big one hit: Cabin in the Woods. Starring some familiar faces like Fran Kranz (Topher from Whedon’s show Dollhouse) and Christopher Hemsworth (best known as Thor in, well, Thor), it’s a B-grade-style horror that seeks to examine the very core of the classic B-grade horror film plot.
Before going any further, I must give the obligatory SPOILER ALERT for all words past this point. But even that has a very different meaning when trying to discuss this film. Usually a film has a standard concept or plot, with the twist at the end being what can be spoiled. Other films are high concept and the ending is not as important, making them more about the experience as a whole. Cabin is some odd hybrid of both, being a high-concept film with a low-concept presentation, in a way that both the ending AND the experience are what make this film an almost perfect example of Joss Whedon’s trademark genre-bending, and make it impossible to discuss without revealing the surprise/unexpected.
So if you are reading this and have not seen Cabin in the Woods, please stop reading and go watch it. I’ll wait.
Finished with it now? Mind blown? Drink spilled? Understanding of the universe expanded? Get a towel and join me back here.
Just Google the reviews and most of them have titles like “the horror film to end all horror films.” Watching it once, that becomes clear. Watching it twice, you notice all the little Easter Eggs and in-jokes that Whedonites have come to recognize. This movie did not attempt to be the greatest horror film of all time. It attempts to be EVERY horror film of all time, and it largely succeeds. Call it “The Grand Unified Horror Theory.” Take the classic horror premise: a group of attractive teenage friends (including that one guy/girl that doesn’t fit in but still hangs out with them for some reason) go into a scary place and all but one get horribly murdered by monsters. In Cabin, not only does the usually super-natural horror film premise have a logical explanation, but ALL horror films can be explained at once.Every scary monster, from Nosferatu-like vampires to Chthulu horrors to unicorns for some reason, is present in this movie and serves the same purpose: delivering sacrifices. Every horror movie and nightmare from Frankenstein to Tales from the Hood is part of a very carefully planned and organized system to keep the old gods at bay.
The biggest criticism of this film is that it’s not actually very scary, which is true. Does that mean it fails as a horror film? Yes, but it never tries to do otherwise. There’s more to a horror movie than just being scared. There are expectations about the scrappy band of heroes who go forth to die, and Cabin acknowledges those conventions as it gracefully pushes them down the stairs.
Convention 1: The jock, the slutty blonde, and the stoner all will die horrible deaths at the hands of their own hubris. Yes, the slut gets it first, but Thor actually dies in a rather noble way compared to his muscle-headed counterparts in other films. Plus the stoner outlives most of the good and bad guys alike.
Convention 2: The awkward outsider of the team who didn’t want to come in the first place will develop a budding romance with the pathetic/sympathetic of the group only to have a sad and dramatic death to save the girl. Okay, this happens but he gets the hell killed out of him almost at random, no last kiss or speech. It should be known by now that very few people ever get a speech when Joss Whedon is at the helm.
Convention 3 (a twist on Convention 2): The awkward outsider of the team who didn’t want to come in the first place will be the lone survivor of the encounter and ride off to tell the world of what s/he’s seen. Kinda, but not really. Not only does Topher (the stoner) also live to the very end, but they don’t really survive to tell the tale. No one does. Which leads us to…
Convention 4: At the movie’s end, the monster that killed everyone is revealed to still be alive despite the heroes escaping, leaving the franchise open for sequels. NOPE! World ends. Game over. Thanks for playing.
I can completely understand why horror fans would feel a bit unsatisfied with the “everyone in the world dies” ending of Cabin, but if taken from the larger-picture perspective, less as a horror movie and more as a slightly satiric examination of horror movies as a whole, it’s actually the perfect ending. As stated in Convention 4, a good horror movie leaves the fear still lingering at the end of the film. The beast has to still exist, even if all you see is the severed hand of the monster twitch slightly before the credits. The idea behind a true horror is that the heroes CAN’T defeat the monster. They have to outsmart it or outrun it. Even if they manage to send the beast back to hell, they know it’s only a matter of time until the beast returns.
However, Cabin ends the way most films don’t: the heroes actually do defeat the Big Bad, but at the cost of, well, everyone. The Big Bad was protecting humanity, but in their quest to not die the heroes have now ensured their demise. How selfish of them!
Fans of true horror and slasher films may not enjoy Cabin, and I don’t blame them. However, fans of Joss Whedon, of genre-bending, or people who don’t like horror but have to watch it because their spouse or partner is a fan of said above items will likely enjoy how it breaks from convention. There’s plenty of classic Whedon humor and plenty of little details and hidden jokes (Did you see the Reaver? Watch it again!) to make it an enjoyable film for those who enjoy their movies with a dose of meta.