To say I am not a fan of the collected works of Joss Whedon would be like saying water is wet. While this is true, it doesn’t quite encapsulate the myriad forms of water, and how all-encompassing it is in the world. Water covers roughly 71% of the world, much as my dislike of Whedon fills 71% of my being. I don’t hate all of his work, and I think some of his work is brilliant, but most of it just pisses me off and annoys me. So, when I started hearing about Cabin in the Woods, and the, dare I say it, completely gayballs reviews, it made me leery. I’d heard this before, after all. Dr. Horrible, Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Titan AE…Dollhouse. Each time, I’d give it a chance and each time I’d walk away shaking my head in disappointment. I know a lot of people love his stuff, so I’m readily admitting that maybe it’s just not for me. With that in mind, I decided I still wanted to see Cabin in the Woods, if only for the hype machine surrounding it. I find it impossible to discuss many of my observations and opinions without “digging in”. So, a general warning here, IF YOU CARE ABOUT THE SURPRISE FACTOR, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.
This space reserved to give a little more spoiler-free room before the cut.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I heard about the movie was, “try and go into this movie knowing as little as possible about it, otherwise you lose some of the enjoyment”. To that I say, “why bother”? The premise of the movie is incredibly obvious within the first ten minutes of the film, or at least the most obvious premise of the movie. I feel strongly that this does not detract from the enjoyment of the film. The opening scene of the movie is one of the strongest of the film, all the more for the splash-cut opening title. This sets up the de facto conceit of the film, and the one that you will hear the most about when hearing about this film. I want to stress that knowing the basic idea of the film does not detract from it and the “gotcha” factor is pretty low, all things considered, as it does not wait until the last moment for a twist to occur.
Now, I can’t really continue without discussing at least the basic set-up of the film. The film begins with two older men (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) discussing life and their jobs in a corporate setting. Their dialogue is exquisite, and their chemistry on scene is a true joy, especially when their supporting cast is added in as well. Amy Acker is her usual incredible, feeling, emotive self, and Brian White does a great job as the new security officer serving the “corporate crew”. This is a very likable group of characters, which I will come back to later in my review as they play a pivotal role in the expressly presented scenes, and the underlying subtext of the film.
In discussing the film after seeing it, one of my co-viewers expressed dissatisfaction with the presented theme of the movie, that of Cosmic Justice. His observation is that the movie purported to be about Cosmic Justice, but it was not actually about that, since it was a manipulated premise. While I understood what he was saying, and I agree that if you take the conceit at face value is DEFINITELY reads this way, I couldn’t quite express why I didn’t feel the same way. However, as I was driving home, it hit me. The conceit of the film isn’t really what it appears to be. This is something I am sure was more readily apparent to film critics and aficionados, but I am a mere enthusiast. There are a few very telling lines in the film that helped me to fully realize what I trying to understand. The first is line uttered by the stoner Marty (Fran Kranz, who continues to be awesome). While rolling a joint, he mentions that society isn’t crumbling, it’s binding. People keep trying to keep things together and force people to assume roles, jobs, and engender outcomes when they should really just let things fall apart. Now, this is obviously a line that foreshadows the rest of the film, but let’s not judge it at face value quite yet. When it is taken with one of the other critical lines, “they have to transgress, we can’t force them to do anything, they have to choose”. Now, this same scene has a line from Brian White that put it all together for me, “Isn’t this rigging the game?” Now, the guard was referring to something else entirely within the scene, but this is one of the cleverly placed dialogue exchanges that the critics are going ape shit over.
As a quick aside, the reason that film critics love this movie is because this is obviously a love letter to film in a way that so many other movies are not. It’s the Shaun of the Dead of the 80’s slasher/cult genre. It’s a film that exhibits the genre both in parody and in excellent execution. It identifies the tropes and both embraces and twists them. Really, it’s as if Scream was expanded to not only be a referential lift, but designed to look at the underlying absurdity and give it an “Aw shucks” smile and shoe shuffle. I haven’t even yet mentioned the masterful directing and editing that have gone into this film. It really is well, and lovingly, crafted. There is a lot to like about this movie, and the obvious love of film and the genre is a big part of that, and the reason that critics love it so much. Good, we got that out of the way.
Ok, so back to those above lines. What did that mean to me? Well, it meant to me that the Cosmic Justice message was not in reference to the young people top side, but to show what happens when things are forced and are not part of the natural order. Let’s take a look at the cast of “the corporate crew” in greater detail. The two initial characters, Sitterson (Jenkins) and Hadley (Whitford), are introduced having a conversation about children and relationships. It’s clear from the context that Sitterson is an avowed bachelor who doesn’t want to connect with anyone and that Hadley is the fun loving goof. You have Lin (Acker), the chem specialist who flirts with the new guy and is hit on quite a bit at the party, and Truman (White), the physical one. Then you have Ronald, the Intern who guesses correctly and is there for the love of the job. Now, let’s take a look at the “cabin crew”. We have Dana (Kristen Connolly), a studious girl who just had an affair with her teacher and isn’t too broken up about how it ended, since she knew better. Jules (Anna Hutchinson) and Curt (Chris Hemsworth), who are a couple. Jules is revealed as being the fun loving one, but isn’t actually wanton, as is shown through dialogue with Marty. Curt is revealed as a very smart sociology student who cares about his friends, despite his being an athlete. Holden (Jesse Williams) doesn’t get a lot to work with, but is revealed as mostly an athlete, who is both polite and shy. Marty (Fran Kranz) is a burnout intellectual. Now, it appears that these groups don’t actually have a lot in common, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The face value conceit of the film would have us believe that the typical roles we see in horror films are necessary to placate the ancient ones slumbering beneath the world. These are the Whore, the Athlete, the Scholar, the Fool, and the Virgin. Ritual dictates that the Whore dies first, and the Virgin must die last. The death of the Virgin isn’t guaranteed or necessary, but is left up to Fate. While this isn’t stated, I assume that this only matters for the US based ritual, as the Japanese ritual they show, while hilarious, is completely different in set up. I don’t know enough horror tropes from other countries to get the brief glimpses, but I am sure there were Easter Eggs there. Anyway, back on point. The “corporate crew” goes to incredibly elaborate lengths to orchestrate what must happen. Jules’ hair dye is tampered with, pheromones and chemicals are pumped into the Cabin in order to prompt responses, and Marty’s marijuana is tampered with, though the chemistry department fails again, poor Amy Acker. These characters all eventually morph to fill the roles that are required by the ritual. However, they fight against it constantly, and both Dana and Marty fight against it quite knowingly. Contrast this with the “corporate crew”. Sitterson, the Virgin. Hadley, the Fool. Lin, the Whore. Truman, the Athlete. Ronald, the Scholar.These characters are much more aligned to the classical roles than the people they are forcing to try and achieve them. This is definitely not an accident, nor is the way they die.
One of the pivotal scenes in the film is around the “betting pool” that occurs. It isn’t clear until the cellar scene concludes, the cellar having been alluded to in an earlier scene, that this is a bet around what is going to be the source of demise for the people in the Cabin. This is the entire outcome of the “transgress” comment from earlier, and if you take the movie at face value, here’s where the movie loses some luster. All the “Cabin Crew” does is check out some of the freaky shit in the cellar and then eventually Dana reads a creepy diary, which selects the agent of their death. Now, I might have missed some of the dialogue in the betting sequence, and I want to see it again, but the “corporate crew” all selects different outcomes, and only maintenance and Ronald select correctly. This leads me to believe that each character selected differently, and I think they even say what the outcomes should be, but I am not 100% sure on that. Truman refrains from betting. One of the important things here is the Hadley bemoans the fact that the merman was not chosen form of cosmic vengeance.
Now, I want to skip ahead and say that only two of the “Cabin crew” died from their choices. Jules dies because of the release of pheromones and artificial moonlight to convince her and Curt to have sex in the forest, and thus leave her for bait. Curt is killed by an invisible force field wall. Only Holden is killed due to the zombie redneck hiding in the truck and killing him after he had to turn around and drive back to the cabin because the road was closed. Marty and Dana survive until the end, but ultimately do die as a result of their actions and choices, but not from the zombies they selected. However, the “corporate crew” dies grizzly, grizzly deaths. This is, of course, due to the direct actions of Dana and Marty, who move to confront their puppetmasters.
Truman dies from myriad things, a result of indecision possibly, Lin dies from a giant bat thing, I think, and Hadley finally gets his merman, to which is reaction is awesome and I could go on about at length. In fact, I will shortly discuss it because his reaction says so many things. He realizes the Cosmic Justice of the situation, and expresses unhappiness at the outcome, maybe even realizing that the merman being the chosen killer would have worked out quite poorly. It’s a great scene anyway you slice it. The last death of this crew? Sitterson, in the role of the Virgin. This is absolutely on purpose.
The final moments of the film bring it full circle in a very strange way. The choice made in the cellar does, indeed, result in the ultimate transgression by Dana and Marty. In this moment, the commentary of Marty made earlier becomes clear, and the message of the movie is made clear. Sometimes you have to let go and see things fall apart if you want something new and better to rise. This is what Whedon and Goddard are trying to do with this genre, and it’s what they want you to understand. Unfortunately, I honestly thing that this bit of navel gazing on their part was buried beneath the outer cruft of the movie that they rely upon the viewer to strip away. This is a movie watcher’s movie, and it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to make it this far. However, the more I think about the film, the more rewarded I feel by it.
The dialogue is strong, the acting is solid, and the comedic timing is excellent. The special effects and presentation are great too. These are all surface things that are apparent to everyone, and thus I think it will receive at least “warm” responses from the people that have seen it. For me? I think it’s safe to say that this is my favorite work by Whedon so far, and it only goes to prove that his strength in collaboration is mighty.