“I love being scared.” So said Joss Whedon in an interview with Total Film regarding The Cabin in the Woods, which he produced and co-wrote with director Drew Goddard. “The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had sung a little too far in that direction.” When I first read that quote a few weeks ago, I wished Whedon had been there with me, for I wanted to shake him by the hand and thank him for publically reaffirming what I’ve felt about horror movies for quite some time. But then I actually saw The Cabin in the Woods, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t seeing things as he saw them. Something wasn’t quite right.
The film, promoted by Whedon himself as a “very loving hate letter” and “a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies,” is nowhere near as clever or insightful as it has been made to seem. Whedon and Goddard clearly have fun with a number of threadbare horror clichés, but never once do they actually say anything relevant about them. All these men really do is confirm that they exist, which is shortsighted considering the fact that most horror audiences are already well aware of this. They think they’re letting us in on the joke when in fact we were in on it all along. What I was promised was satire; what I got was a confusing, ridiculous, and surprisingly depressing film in which archetypes and conventions are addressed but barely improved.
Central to the story are five college kids who were clearly intended to be one-dimensional caricatures. But pointing out their shallowness and actually commenting on it are two entirely different matters, and frankly, I would have preferred the filmmakers to go in the latter direction. There’s Dana, the reluctant virgin (Kristen Connolly). There’s her best friend, Jules, the perpetually horny sexpot (Anna Hutchison), who just dyed her hair blonde; although she can’t pronounce one of the words on Dana’s math book, it’s declared that she’s premed. There’s Jules’ boyfriend, Curt, the hunky jock (Chris Hemsworth). There’s Holden, the scholarly gentleman (Jesse Williams), who will inevitably fall for Dana. Finally, there’s Marty, the goofy pothead (Fran Kranz), who sounds like he knows more than he initially lets on.
They leave campus and take an RV to a remote part of the woods, where they vacation in a strangely decorated and certifiably creepy cabin. Little do they know that beneath the cabin lies a subterranean office superstructure, where a bureaucratic team of workers in suits, ties, and lab coats watch their every move via surveillance cameras. Two scientists, Hadley (Richard Jenkins) and Sitterson (Bradley Whitford), use a force field to seal the college kids into the wooded area and subject them to a scenario of their own design. They manipulate the circumstances as much as possible, mostly by the release of airborne chemicals that can change a person’s ability to think. They eventually open the cellar, where, amidst an eclectic mix of creepy Victorian paraphernalia, Dana finds an old diary. Upon reading a Latin incantation, zombies emerge from the ground and descend on the cabin.
At this point, I’m going to stop describing the plot in detail, as there are numerous twists and turns that most will not want spoiled. I will say that the film is intended to be both frightening and funny, and to an extent, it succeeds at both. In the humor department, we have more than the antics of the college kids; we have the working environment of the subterranean office. Just as it would be in an urban skyrise, we see division of labor and the formation of cliques. We see money pools and office partying, and there’s even enough time to work in the playful ribbing of the nerdy intern. When they’re not working, the scientists will gab about their personal lives; in the opening scene, Sitterson spends a great deal of time complain about his wife and her new cabinets.
There’s an extremely bloody confrontation involving every imaginable monster from the annals of horror, from wispy spirits to werewolves to giant cobras to robotic slicing machines to zombies to carnivorous mermen. All leads to a Lovecraftian ending that was not only lame-brained and inappropriate but also needlessly upsetting. Was that the point of The Cabin in the Woods? To espouse a nihilistic viewpoint of humanity? If this is Whedon’s idea of sticking it to the makers of slasher films and gore fests, he might want to steer clear of the horror genre altogether. I hate to think that there are other genres he feels have been corrupted. If he were to write another very loving hate letter, say for a romantic comedy or a musical, would it too end in the same way?