Director: Drew Goddard
Screenwriters: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
Length: 1h 35m
Synopsis: Five painfully typical college students escape to a cabin in the woods for a weekend getaway, where they are helpless to and unaware of the manipulations of a secret organization that’s trying to orchestrate their deaths at the hands of supernatural evils. The cabin itself rests on a secluded plot of land that is cut-off from the outside world, and underneath it is where the horror waits to be unleashed. Through various means the organization encourages the nubiles to break the appropriate genre rules so as to warrant their imminent deaths, which come at the hands of a randomly selected terror. The peculiar thing about all of this is that the puppeteers of the organization do not bother with such elaborate plotting for their own twisted amusement. Indeed, they do it for a much greater cause. But what on Earth could that be?
Analysis: The scenario of Cabin in the Woods alone says a lot about its creators and their view of modern horror audiences. With each dangerously mediocre horror film that passes through theaters audiences have come to know the intolerably typical characters and plot setups so well that they can’t help but be stupefied by their own foolish hearts, continually expecting in vain that something different will come along. The horror genre has come to be seen as a gross deposit of paint-by-numbers projects (with only rare and undervalued examples like Trick’r Treat and Triangle to remind us that there is in fact still some creativity left to be tapped) with a generic setting like a cabin in the woods becoming nothing more than our own sadistic playpen where our pitiless natures can derive satisfaction from watching the stupid suffer from their own stupidity. In the childish game of American horror everything has become so fixed that the keystone threat has become the only variable, and even it is selected from a toy chest that’s filled with things we’re sick to death of playing with. Cabin in the Woods makes both the playpen and the toy chest so transparent that metaphors are almost completely bypassed in favor of literality. And because of this, its humorous commentary on the horror genre bites that much harder. Like a glass of water in an endless desert of depressingly insipid efforts (many of them remakes), we are greeted with a self-parodying genre flick that tops all of its kind.
For at least the first half of the film the cookie cutter characters do exactly what they’re intended to do, which is smoke weed, flirt, drink, and be dumb. Because of this our interest is heavily staked on the puppeteers running the show, who manipulate the teens’ environment in order to coax them into committing the respective moral offenses they’re known for. The purpose of this elaborate trap is to ensure that each teen dies for their transgressions, with each death acting as a sacrifice/offering to “the ancient ones” – i.e. mystic beings who must be satiated lest they bring about the end of days. Now, because these puppeteers have so much influence on the “show” being put on for us in this parody we’re prompted to ask who it is they’re meant to represent. Writers? Directors? Studios? or why not all of them? And if this is so, then we can assume that the “ancient ones” are horror audiences in general, since it is only they whom filmmakers have reason to dread. The whole setup suggests an industry afraid of change for fear of upsetting its target consumers and, moreover, that those consumers themselves not only don’t expect change but actually demand similitude. But why would this be so? Well, like the characters unfeeling enough to orchestrate the systematic killing of near-helpless youths, horror audiences are also properly desensitized. And because of this, the film’s creators are convinced that such audiences are not in fact looking to be scared but instead looking to reaffirm their overqualified standing; being too smart or brave to find the protagonists relatable, and by extension pitiable. In other words, they find being a know-it-all about the genre too comfortable to be willing to tread into atypical territory.
I won’t spoil anything by telling you that in this story such venturing into uncertain circumstances becomes an eventuality that even the puppeteers have to face. Coming off weakly as poetic justice for being so cruel, what eventually comes to be in the end is due to the will of neither the manipulators nor the “ancient ones.” The forsaken characters themselves assume control over their own destinies, with the finale putting an exclamation point on their proclaimed emancipation from formula. It is appropriate enough that it is the characters who are the ones to call time-out and demand that something be done differently. What that thing is – again, without spoiling anything – is something that could potentially perturb or delight an audience, and that potential in and of itself is a step in the right direction. Characters of course exist at the mercy of writers and filmmakers, but if they could speak directly to us I’m sure they’d let know how sick they were of being themselves. Cabin in the Woods is not a truly harsh parody just because it pokes fun with and criticizes its own genre (a la Scream), but also because it criticizes the type of audience that helps perpetuate that genre’s staleness. It challenges audiences to self-criticize and dare themselves to trek into the unfamiliar. This is why, apart from being a genuinely entertaining romp, the film works so far high above other parodies like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon which, while also well-written and highly entertaining, don’t acknowledge the audience’s fair share of influence/blame. After accepting this, the thing for us to do is wait and see if the release of Cabin causes a stir in the horror genre like it ostensibly intends, or if it’s ignored by all and we’re faced with evermore monotony. With the horror genre in particular, quality only emerges from when a filmmaker’s desire to be different becomes an audience’s previously unknown desire for what that ends up being. It is an understatement to say that Cabin in the Woods is primed to be considered of appreciable quality.