“Stereotypes are a real time-saver.” Like so many things, this wry gag was around long before The Onion perfectly codified it and left Internet readers with an easy reference point to share whenever they’re ironically justifying some shameful belief, or accusing someone else of doing it. Horror screenwriters have taken advantage of stereotypes for decades: More than any other modern genre, horror films (and especially slashers, or other cast-attrition movies) rely on quick-hit iconography to get characters introduced and headed to hell as quickly as possible. By establishing characters in extreme brief as broad, reductive, disreputable types (the snob, the asshole, the party hound, the slut, etc.), horror filmmakers can push viewers to do the hard work of filling in the blanks in thin characterizations—and, knowing that all of the characters may die, probably filling in those blanks from their own histories with obnoxious people. Slathering their own moral judgments over these simple, doomed avatars can give slasher fans a sense of catharsis—and make them feel more comfortable about being entertained by the characters’ gory deaths.
Writer-director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon know exactly how these character tropes work, and they openly deconstruct them in their 2012 horror-comedy spoof The Cabin In The Woods. Whedon, the fan-beloved creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and Firefly (and now smash-hit writer-director of Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One capper The Avengers), has spent his career cleverly deconstructing genre tropes while playing directly into them. Goddard, a writer for Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Lost, turned a similar genre awareness into his clever script for the monster-movie genre rethink Cloverfield. In Cabin, they mimic and lampoon genre tropes for comic effect, but also to encourage viewers to examine how these tropes work, and do a little soul-searching about how easy it is to buy into them and dismiss the humanity of horror victims. But at the same time, they take advantage of stereotypes, getting the same benefits out of them as any straight-horror filmmaker. Cabin’s biggest strength is how capably it can perform multiple tasks at once, upending horror-film language for thoughtful and playful effect.
The setup has five attractive, bantering college-age buddies—Dana (Kristen Connolly), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams), and Marty (Fran Kranz)—setting out for a remote location for a weekend of sex, booze, pot, party games, dips in the lake, and getting slaughtered by some mad, nigh-supernatural slasher. By the end of the film, they’ve found out they were chosen for an ancient sacrificial ritual—they’re meant to be tortured and murdered to placate the Lovecraftian “giant evil gods” that sleep deep in the earth. Specifically, according to the ritual’s American director (Sigourney Weaver), they were chosen to fill the roles of five traditional archetypes: the Whore, the Athlete, the Scholar, the Virgin, and the Fool.
But when Goddard and Whedon first bring in the characters, they show their stereotype underpinnings just long enough to let the familiarity settle, then tug pointedly at the rug under viewers’ feet. Dana, the Virgin, has been screwing one of her professors. Jules, the Whore, is a supportive friend in a happy, committed relationship with the Athlete, Curt—a summa cum laude sociology major on an academic scholarship. Holden, the Scholar, wears glasses and can translate Latin, but is a heavily muscled jock who can catch a football idly hucked out a window and across a street. And the Fool, inveterate stoner Marty, is the group’s most observant, proactive, and capable member, and the one most resistant to the manipulations of the director’s puppetmaster employees.
Once the five are in the cabin, the director’s employees have to go to extreme measures to turn them into the types they’re meant to be for the ritual to be fulfilled: Mechanical devices, controlled environments, subliminal whispers, and a lengthy series of intellect-reducing drugs and pheromones are used to make them dupes and dopes. As Marty senses some of these tricks, and protests them, Goddard and Whedon position him as their ideal audience avatar: Someone capable of seeing the artificiality of a bad horror film, and feeling outraged at all the open fakery. Marty is the savvy, sympathetic viewer who isn’t willing to stand for badly constructed, hollow characters who only exist to give bloodthirsty viewers a bit of a thrill.
But those hollow characters sure are a time-saver. Since Cabin In The Woods is structured to be instantly recognizable as a modern slasher film, with a slasher’s quick pacing and simple dynamics, Goddard and Whedon still get across their ideas in brief, efficient, stereotype-laden scenes. Most of Holden’s characterization comes from the conceptual conflict between him reading Latin and what he looks like with his shirt off. The only thing that differentiates Curt from a standard jock is his propensity for Whedonian banter, and the one scene where he instructs Dana about textbooks. By the time Jules first appears, she’s already under the influence of IQ-suppressing drugs, and is acting like a bouncy ditz. Viewers are meant to recognize that the five leads don’t entirely play to the types they’re given, but they’re introduced in such extreme brief that they just come across as slightly different types—and it still isn’t really important who they were before the horror started. It’s just important what they become when the “redneck zombie torture family” shows up to pick them off.
And once that horror starts, the protagonists become a different kind of generic stereotype: the victims who bleed, plead, scream, and flee over and over for the audience’s titillation. In watching them break down under pressure, Goddard and Whedon tip their hand a little: They don’t pause throughout the film to remind viewers that these guys aren’t typical horror-movie victims, or to underline how the audience should consider them intellectually. Instead, like any bloody horror film, Cabin In The Woods focuses on pain and terror. But just as it uses familiar character types to move the story along quickly, it uses familiar images to remind viewers that they’re watching a horror film. There are so many gags, riffs, inside jokes, and spoofs in Cabin In The Woods that it’s rarely scary. The only real moments of fear, apart from jump scares, come from the points where the filmmakers draw on familiar images from scarier horror films: Marty with a knife in his back, being hauled through the woods by his ankles, scrabbling at the wet earth and begging for his life, or Dana desperately swimming upward out of the lake, with a monster clutching at her legs from below. These are stereotypes too, and Whedon and Goddard use them to help spook viewers who may periodically slip out of any visceral emotional connection with the film during all the self-awareness. Working against stereotypes makes the film stronger, but working with them makes it stronger, too.
They even use tropes from different movies to play around with how the audience sees the antagonists. While Dana and her friends face zombies at ground level, in a bunker below them, smarmy white-collar flunkies Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) are engineering all the bloody mayhem on the director’s behalf. First seen grumbling about tiny domestic details and futzing with the coffee machine, then smugly blowing off their anxious co-worker Lin (Amy Acker), Hadley and Sitterson come across like typical bored, disengaged office workers, playing petty political games and shooting the shit to fight the mundanity of another dreary day. A good chunk of the film’s intelligence comes from the way it exposes the protagonists as more complicated than the usual horror-film victims; a good chunk of its humor comes from how it exposes the antagonists as simpler than evil masterminds usually are. They’re in charge of murdering a bunch of young people to prevent the apocalypse, but they’re also petty, smug, venal, party-happy functionaries who’ve stopped taking the business of killing seriously. Marty is the “good” audience member who questions and resists the empty parade of blood sacrifices; Hadley and Sitterson are the “bad” audience members who’ve gotten jaded, and can’t maintain their sympathy or interest for more than a minute at a time. (They’re also bad horror filmmakers, but we’ll get into that in detail in tomorrow’s forum.)
There are a few stereotypes in Cabin In The Woods that are exactly what they seem to be. Lin really is an anxious go-getter. Truman (Brian White), the symbolically named stand-up soldier who isn’t yet inured to magic and murder—and is taken aback by his co-workers who are—really is the straight-man newbie who’s only around to provide an outsider’s perspective and let the veterans deliver exposition to someone without looking silly. The cabin in the woods really is a Evil Dead-esque dangerous setting with a basement full of mystical relics and a nearby graveyard full of zombies-to-be. But those are about the only tropes Whedon and Goddard play straight.
Mostly, they undermine those tropes to examine them, and to make them laughable, and to make audiences aware of how empty a bad horror-movie experience can be. No one likes being manipulated, and while The Cabin In The Woods rushes along on a wave of humor and giddy mayhem, it also repeatedly points out how similar films are manipulating them by asking them to buy into the same weak execution ritual over and over and over. It even points out the same thing to the surviving characters toward the end: One of the movie’s subtlest, funniest moment comes at the end, when the director tells Marty and Dana about the archetypes they embody. Dana raises a sarcastic, disbelieving eyebrow; Marty just looks wryly disgusted. No one wants to believe they’re a stereotype. No one wants other people to see them as shallow and one-dimensional. And no one, Whedon and Goddard suggest, should settle for shallow, one-dimensional entertainment, either. Better, the film suggests in its final moments, to wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch. Who knows what the new world’s stereotypes will look like?
Tomorrow, our look at Cabin In The Woods continues with a staff forum on the film’s humor, morality, fear factor, and meta elements. And on Thursday, Scott Tobias considers horror in the mechanized-death era.