Logline: Five attractive young people head to a dusty old cabin in the woods for the weekend. You think you know where this one is headed? Now think of all the other directions it could also head in. Crush. Blend. Stir. Serve.
Cabin in the Woods has put me in a bind: I would love nothing more than to talk at length about it, but—on opening weekend, no less—I feel that overt spoilers should be avoided. Generally, I could care less about spoiling, but as has been widely noted by about everyone, a good amount of fun can be had by letting Cabin in the Woods unfold without bringing too much prior knowledge into it*. However, it is worth mentioning that the film has far more to offer than those initial surprises. This is an intelligently-made modern horror film and a sharp piece of genre criticism. I think what I’ll try to do is write about what the film is talking about without explaining how it accomplishes those critical arguments. There are a couple different ways of reading the film:
One interpretation would have to do with examining the creative process behind formula horror pictures. The film seems less interested in poking fun at these inherent genre conventions than in explaining them (why does the heroine always drop her weapon after using it? Why, because it would ruin the plan). There is some requisite snark here and some commentary on voyeurism**, but mostly I was pleased to find Cabin in the Woods actually celebrating the formula as an art form in itself. Because as un-formulaic as so much of the film is, it is simultaneously purely by-the-numbers—so much of the film’s first section feels (intentionally so) exactly like similar pictures of the past decade, with the major disparity being how charming and well-crafted Cabin in the Woods is and how dull and abrasive so many others are.
Another reading can be looked at only from a wider cultural (or, as the film suggests, global) perspective: horror films represent a 20th-21st century form of religious sacrifice. Horror films fulfill a basic human need for bloodshed in hopes of reasserting a grand moral order. As we grow older and look at the youth of the new generation, we are horrified by the corruption we perceive them instigating (even if the perceptions are wrong, as the film shows, and must be enforced). This is why so many formula bodycount horrors feature the young as protagonists: they are sacrificial lambs on the altar of mass culture. While the film does make use of the fact that these sorts of horror films are created by corporate adults, it doesn’t really explore the other implication: formula horror is a genre marketed predominantly to those same teens who are slaughtered on screen. Perhaps Cabin in the Woods is making the point that formula horror is both a symbolic purging of that nasty, youthful moral corruption and a cautionary preventative (Don’t go into the woods… without condoms)?
Another impressive aspect of the film is how well it manages to chart the various directions formula horror films have taken over the decades. Whedon and Goddard cram in implicit references to almost every horror trend in recent memory (I think the only one it missed was the found footage film, but the inclusion of such might have stretched the meta-reflection to its limits), and all these influences crescendo almost sublimely near the film’s conclusion (there’s one 20-second sequence in particular that deserves frame-by-frame viewing). While postmodern in approach, the film is actually a direct archetypal analysis, and so in that way it’s sort of inimitable and beyond the ken of more straightforward meta-horrors (Scream, Behind the Mask). If it has any sort of legacy to stamp on the horror genre, hopefully it’s the realization that these archetypes, conventions, and formulas do have a sort of cultural significance for us—fittingly, a truly modern horror film can either play with or perfect them. Cabin in the Woods does both.
*TBH, an observant genre cinema fan should probably be able to figure out the broad strokes after the opening credits and first scene.
**One character comments, after a specific revelation, “We’re on a reality show,” which is not entirely incorrect. Like reality shows, horror films of the formulaic variety deal in archetypes whom we want to see perform certain roles. We never get upset when reality show stars fail to act as human beings do, but it often feels ludicrous to some when watching these types of horror films. Others of us know better.