The Cabin in the Woods
By Hardeep Aujla
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents..."
H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
So when Dana and Marty light a joint together at the end of The Cabin in the Woods, you're certain they're thinking something similar in the wake of the horror they've just learnt about. It's a horror of Lovecraftian makings in both nature (cosmic) and name (The Ancient Ones), but this is just one strain of the genre that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard overtly draw from in their film. And overt really was the approach here.
Firstly, it's called The Cabin in the Woods, a by-word for a (not particularly well-respected) sub-genre of rural-America-set horror. The Hills Have Eyes, Just Before Dawn, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, several Friday the 13ths. Whilst the obvious titles had some cultural context, whether subverting the frontiersman mythos or commenting on the family unit to some degree under the garble, many soon honed in on the shock value and distilled it into exploitation, and a formula as easily discernible as a fairy tale or the Hero's journey was derived. You have the standard array of teens in peril - "There must be five" as The Director (Sigourney Weaver) explains, there's an old coot that none of them pay heed to, a book that they absolutely should not read (and also a Lament Configuration they should not fidget with), and a conveniently blocked road or broken bridge to prevent escape. It's all there, and that's fine, these are conventions and fans expect them. But the eagle-eyed will know from the Rubik's Cube symbolism on the poster that this isn't just going to be another "one of those". So how exactly are Whedon and Goddard planning on morphing all of these constructs?
Horror is perhaps the most probing and problematic of film genres, and therefore the most in need of examination. The Cabin in the Woods was always too light-hearted to be a reflective piece on the themes of forerunners like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes; this was probably never the filmmakers' mission. The slightest idea of any cultural context that could possibly be brought close is some CERN paranoia/anxiety as the film's 2009 production date was hot on the heels of real-life short-sleeves pressing "Go" on the Large Hadron Collider's remote control.
Instead, The Cabin in the Woods seems to be an inside joke (thankfully not in the Troma fashion). There is a play on the archetypes through some sub-textual attire-changes halfway through (except for the pothead who, like all Shakespearean fools, knows the machinations of his existence). Often the satire at these parts isn't very subtle, but that's not to say it isn't any fun. It's not news to anyone's ears when I say Whedon's writing is highly enjoyable, and one of the few examples where a writer's personal voice creeping into the script isn't a bad thing, whether that's Firefly's Book telling Mal that there's a special level of hell for child molesters along with those who speak in theatres or, well, a lot of this film.
Ultimately, it hinges on a huge plot twist, a switch in villainy from the usual mutant product of backwater inbreeding to a secret underground facility run by pencil pushers. Except we're shown the strings behind this trick from the outset. We open on the facility and its workers, we see a bird frazzle on the force-field as the oblivious teens drive up; the twist is over before it's spun (to this effect, the misunderstandings at the centre of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil made for a superior send-up). We know the cabin's events are being authored by Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), close analogies to Whedon and Goddard (but not quite as close to Wes Craven putting himself directly into New Nightmare).
The twist would have surely been better placed when Curt (Chris Hemsworth) flies his bike into the force-field trying to escape, providing a headfuck moment akin to what Rodriguez and Tarantino envisioned when Salma Hayek turns vampiric in the middle of a crime/road movie. It therefore lacks any suspense. But it is fun, and the idea that all preceding "cabin in the woods" films have been following a protocol to sate an unfathomable horror via a real-life Monster in My Pocket© collection is superb. But I can only imagine a more engaging film where the audience is given the same perspective as the teenagers so that after the halfway point we're likewise scrambling for understanding, and when we're sat watching Dana and Marty light a joint at the end, we're correlating the contents just like they are.
Hardeep Aujla writes and edits album reviews for Word Is Bond in Leicester, England. None of composer David Julyan's atmospheric score cues from The Cabin in the Woods are currently in rotation on AFOS, but they ought to be.