I just read a review of Cabin in the Woods that promised to explain its awesomeness. And while it did touch on some of the reasons for its awesomeness – the effective blend of horror and humor, the self-referentiality, and a marketing campaign that held back the best parts of the film – it didn’t really explain what the movie was about. Like, it didn’t take it apart and spread the pieces out on the rug to figure out what makes it tick. Of course, that’s what we’re all about here at Wonderkill, so if you were wondering, “What’s Cabin in the Woods really about?” allow me to kill that wonder right now.
There are spoilers ahead – this is not a review, it’s a full-on deconstruction – so don’t blame me if you ruin the surprises for yourself. And they are good surprises! So be warned.
First and foremost, CitW is a horror movie for horror movie lovers. Not all horror movies are: some are meant to actually scare people, which means they’re made for people who only have passing exposure to the genre. But once you’ve seen every horror movie ever made, you can watch pretty much anything and still fall asleep at night; at that point, you appreciate a film’s tension, but don’t typically experience full-blown terror. Some horror movies are made for these people, people who are already familiar with the conventions of the genre, and play with those conventions in unusual ways. The Scream movies are obvious examples, and I’d also include the movies of Rob Zombie. In his interview with the AV Club, CitW writer-director Drew Goddard says they set out to make the horror movie to end all horror movies – perhaps quite literally.
But CitW is not only for fans of the genre. In fact, there are two totally different ways to appreciate this movie – and not coincidentally, there are two windows into the story. For those people looking for a good scare, there’s the prototypical po-faced good girl, Dana. We relate to her sense of being alone, overwhelmed, and afraid. For those who know the horror genre inside and out (and while we’re at it, a good chunk of the people fitting that description are probably stoners), there’s Marty the geek, who is not only immune to the psychological tricks the house throws at him (having spent years inuring himself to their effects), but is always just on the verge of figuring the whole thing out. Of course, what makes this extra-special is that the writers didn’t just populate their movie with these characters; they also directly referenced the fact that they are archetypes found in the exact kind of horror scenarios that play out in movies like the one we’re watching – even going so far as to give these archetypes titles and icons.
In other words, Joss Whedon (co-writer) and Goddard are doing two things: they’re trying to scare us, but they’re also presenting us with a puzzle to figure out. Lips-sealed marketing notwithstanding, the poster couldn’t make this more obvious: it shows the eponymous cabin as an unsolved Rubik’s cube. In fact, if you nip over to the official website for a second, you’ll see that they’ve taken this meta-ness one step further, and show the image with an intermittent signal-distortion effect that looks like you’re seeing it through a security monitor like the ones used by the nameless organization pulling the strings.
What are the clues Goddard leaves us, to help us decipher the subtext of this film? There’s so many, it’s tough to know where to start. Perhaps the most glaring is that once they’re in the cabin, the nature of their demise really doesn’t matter. Zombies, vampires, tiny dancer – take your pick; it’s totally extraneous to the story. Hitchcock labelled this the MacGuffin, and its sole purpose is to drive action. In a horror movie, whatever’s killing people drives the plot, but the mere fact they’re being killed is the plot. So trivial is the nature of the MacGuffin that this becomes the film’s biggest gag: the gambling pool on which of the many potential killers it will turn out to be. Of course, the other major gag is what plays out in other countries, and the failure of the various MacGuffins thrown into action – a cross-section of international horror, most notably the Japanese onryō familiar from The Ring, The Grudge, and other J-horror classics.
But before they wander into the basement simply loaded with potential MacGuffins, they discover a two-way mirror in one of the bedrooms. There’s a passing relevance to plot and character here – it gives us a chance to see what a stand-up guy Holden is (of course, he dies anyway), and it plays a part in a last-minute rescue – but it’s not crucial to either. Why did the people who built the cabin put it there? No discernible reason. It’s more crucial as a symbol that helps develop the theme: the two way mirror mirrors (ha!) the surveillance of the puppetmasters – but also mirrors the way we, the audience, watch the story unfold without being seen.
That’s another clue: the protagonists are enclosed in an area dominated by surveillance. They have an audience both in the control room and in the theatres playing Cabin in the Woods. Not only that, this area is enclosed by an impenetrable screen, a fourth wall if you will, through which they can’t break. They’re forced to perform to placate a mysterious, powerful force that demands sacrifice, on a stage set for the purpose. At one point, Hadley refers obliquely to the bloodthirsty beings downstairs in a way almost as pointedly referential as the attackers addressing us in Funny Games; anyone analyzing the puzzle this film presents should take this reference as the coup-de-grace.
So who is this bloodthirsty audience? We don’t know at first. All we know is there’s a control room filled with people whose job is to stage-manage this performance. There’s something decidedly prosaic about this control room, at least in the beginning. And that’s because, nested as it is within a story referencing the horror genre, this control room is about the people who put together the movie itself. The sexy teens are stand-ins for characters, but the puppetmasters are stand-ins for Cabin in the Wood‘s actual crew. CitW is a film about horror movies – and about making horror movies, and about horror movie audiences. It’s not a coincidence the people working the control room are terrified of whatever’s downstairs – precisely as terrified as movie studios are that their movie will flop. And Sigourney Weaver’s character? She’s credited only as “The Director.” You could describe CitW as “Hunger Games meets Evil Dead.” You could also describe it as “Funny Games meets Day for Night.”
There’s a hidden barb here; after all, that makes us the bloodthirsty creatures, hungering for a cathartic sacrifice – which in itself is not so bad, but why “downstairs”? Why not on a mountaintop, where gods usually live? There’s Hades, of course, and there’s the very Lovecraftian feel to the entire enterprise of feeding an ancient hunger, but all of this is just a roundabout way of saying that horror movies, including the one you’re watching, are pandering to your basest instincts. And the id resides in the basement, naturally.
That’s the final level of horror: the horror that the filmmakers feel at their audience. Bloodthirsty, insatiable, but worst of all, unpredictable. i09 conducted a great spoileriffic interview with Goddard, where he explained,
The questions that Cabin raises all involve the treatment of youth in our culture. Not just our culture, but, as a species. We’ve always idealized youth, and then destroyed youth. That has happened since the beginning of time, and I’m fascinated by why we do that. Those questions struck to the heart of Cabin — why do we do what we do? It goes back to, ‘Let’s build the virgin up and then throw her into the volcano. Let’s put these kids on a mountain top and then stab them with stone knives.’ That’s been happening forever.
As in Funny Games, the sadists on screen – the ones who so coolly torture and kill innocent people, are doing it for us – in the allegorical sense, but also quite literally, this bloodbath is for our entertainment. The sacrifice was quite literal, once upon a time, but if movie-making is a continuation of this, then the modern horror movie, even if it’s play-acting, continues the tradition of our murderous past – sublimated, maybe, but the brutal, atavistic nature of the audience is the same as ever. What could be more horrifying than that?