Tasha: As I mentioned in my Cabin In The Woods keynote, the film plays heavily with meta ideas in terms of using familiar character tropes to play with audience expectations, and using familiar images to jerk viewers back into horror mode even after a gag or a move back to the puppetmasters undercuts the tension. But there are other meta elements to the movie as well, and one of the big ones is the idea that behind-the-scenes button-pushers Sitterson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) are stand-ins for horror filmmakers, manipulating events to give their presumed audience all the sex and gore they want. It comes out most clearly when Sitterson and Hadley are setting up the pheromone mists and lighting to invite victims Jules and Curt (Anna Hutchison and Chris Hemsworth) to have sex outdoors. “We’re not the only ones watching,” Hadley says. “Got to keep the customer satisfied,” Sitterson says. They’re talking about the monstrous ancient entities they’re trying to placate with their ritual, but they’re also talking about us, the viewers, and the rituals we go through with horror movies. This entire film is about the making of horror films. But while it’s funny and self-aware about it, isn’t it also a little insulting? I know a couple of you are horror buffs—how do you feel about being told it’s your fault that these guys need to use all the resources at their disposal to make their characters dumb and pliant so they’ll show off their boobs, make ridiculous choices, and march willingly into the blender?
Scott: You’re right, Tasha. As a horror fan, I’ve always thought there’s a measure of contempt to The Cabin In The Woods. It’s a horror movie for people who dislike horror movies—or, if you like, a thinking person’s Scream. In any case, the film’s meta conception does reward the know-it-alls in the audience, often by zagging at every point an average horror film would zig. And it all starts with the pre-credits stinger, which normally (even in Scream) has some young beauty getting hacked to death before the title comes on, but instead, screenwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard offer a couple of middle-aged guys in lab coats exchanging banalities about baby locks, and chatter about some vague scientific initiative we don’t learn about until later. The only shock is the jump-scare of the title. You describe the machinations of the film well, Tasha, with Sitterson and Hadley serving as our cynical, ogling, gorehound puppetmasters, arranging a scenario in which teens take their shirts off and get slaughtered for our edification. (Though I feel inclined to point out that you seem to approve of Whedon and Goddard poking the audience here, and detest Michael Haneke for doing exactly the same thing in Funny Games. Is it because Haneke isn’t interested in being witty about it?)
Tasha: That’s part of it. For me, there’s a smugness and contempt in Haneke’s Funny Games that assumes much too much about the audience: Who they are, how much gore they crave and are disappointed at not seeing, what they need to be scolded for. It feels morally superior about denying me gore I wasn’t actually interested in seeing in the first place. Cabin In The Woods does have its scoldy side, but it isn’t just talking down to the audience; it implicates the puppetmasters as well, for enjoying their work too much, for being dismissive about their responsibility (especially at the beginning, where they brush off concerns about how the day might go), and for their callousness in the face of suffering. Haneke points the interrogation light at the audience and lectures them; Goddard and Whedon turn it back on themselves when Hadley takes a moment to feel deeply sorry for one of his victims, then instantly brush it off, mid-sentence, when the tequila shows up. The creators may think horror-movie audiences are jaded and prurient, but they’re willing to acknowledge the same impulses in themselves.
Genevieve: Are the ancient entities being placated here supposed to stand in for viewers—for us watching the movie—or for a more vague construct of “the audience,” by which I mean the commercial expectations that dictate the terms of mainstream moviemaking? I’ve always interpreted Cabin In The Woods’ message less as a finger-pointing, “Is this what you want to see, you sicko?” than as “This is what Hollywood assumes you want to see, isn’t it ridiculous/offensive/stupid?” Couldn’t those massive underground creatures be stand-ins for studio-system bigwigs, intent on pumping out the same old machinations over and over again—your Fridays The 13th, your Saws, your Paranormal Activities—until they no longer make enough money to justify themselves? The fact that Cabin In The Woods’ sacrifice is a yearly ritual, which is roughly the rate at which horror sequels reproduce, and the running gag about the other countries failing in the ritual, which evokes the short-lived J-horror wave, hint at an interpretation that’s more about the strictures of commercial filmmaking expectations than about shaming individual viewers for their aesthetic tastes. Because of that, I’ve never really felt I was being held accountable by Cabin, the way Tasha mentions. But then again, I’m not a regular horror viewer. Either way, I’m off the hook!
Noel: Perhaps one of the reasons you feel exempted, Genevieve, is because there’s an unspoken-but-not-obscured implication in Cabin In The Woods that the audience making these demands is male. Even beyond the many times, early in the film, when viewers are teased with the possibility (or promise?) of female nudity, the whole vibe of the opening scene at the lab is very dude-y. When Sitterson and Hadley open the film talking about child-proofing locks, they’re not-so-subtly grumbling about the dumb things women make them do. And that sense of macho certainty carries over to the way they treat their colleague Lin (Amy Acker), always certain that her department is to blame for any failures. From Buffy to Dollhouse, Whedon has always had a reputation as a genre writer who thinks about gender, and tries to subvert stereotypes. So I’m sure it’s no accident that it’s not just horror fans getting the needle in Cabin, but guys.
Tasha: Oh, interesting! I hadn’t considered that, but it would explain something that mildly bugged me: When Curt and Jules head into the wood to have sex, Goddard cuts to the puppetmasters’ control room, where about two dozen dorky-looking guys, mostly in lab coats or button-downs and ties, are all staring raptly at the screen, hoping to see a little action. I always wondered why there are no women at all in the shot, given how gender-integrated the rest of the scenes are; I assumed it was a “guys like porn” gag, but c’mon, Chris Hemsworth getting naked and busy should draw at least a few of the copious women involved in orchestrating the cabin scenario. Maybe not if the real point being made there is that the whole meta horror-show is more a dude thing than a lady thing. (Though even so, “only guys watch horror” isn’t any more constructive an idea than “only guys watch porn.”)
Scott: Tasha and I will forever argue over Funny Games’ merits, but it’s true that what rescues The Cabin In The Woods from having a similar scolding tone are the many, many jokes that make it, first and foremost, a great entertainment. In addition to the meta gags, there’s the expected Whedon banter (“I have the Harbinger on line two.” “Oh Christ, can you take a message?”) and plenty of visual humor, too: When those monsters get unleashed, it’s far funnier than it is terrifying to see the bloody mêlée that ensues, as various ghosts, zombies, and reptilian creatures come in waves. (That elevator “ding” is a particularly brilliant touch.) And I can’t say enough about how much Whedon troupe member Fran Kranz brings to the movie as Marty, whose running commentary carries the film’s tone of comic self-awareness. (“Okay, I’m drawing a line in the fucking sand here. Do not read the Latin!”) But there’s cleverness, too, in the way the film fiddles with horror stereotypes and construction; planting the big twist at the beginning caused all sorts of headaches for reviewers, but that shot of the bird smacking into the force field is a typically elegant and funny turn of the plot. It also sets up my favorite gag: Chris Hemsworth giving that big, stirring speech before jumping the ravine, not knowing what we absolutely know is going to happen to him.
Tasha: Weird detail: According to the DVD commentary, Whedon considers that scene a failure, because at a SXSW sneak preview, the audience noise clearly indicated they knew what was going to happen when Curt jumped the gap. But Whedon and Goddard had expected the audience to forget about the barrier, and for Curt’s death to be a huge shock, and they were surprised and disappointed when it wasn’t. For me, most of the strength of that scene is in the anticipation, and in the awful irony of Curt, Dana (Kristen Connolly), and Holden (Jesse Williams) exchanging goodbyes and inspirational promises we know will come to nothing. It’s an awful, cruel kind of humor that crops up a lot in horror films—the feeling of knowing more than the characters do, and thus feeling a little safer than they are, which comes with a bit of relief and distance. Whedon and Goddard didn’t mean for that scene to be horribly funny, but to anyone who remembers the bird sequence, I think it comes across that way.
Scott: Wow, I’m shocked to hear that. How could audiences forget the bird sequence? Are they Guy Pearce in Memento? To me, it plays like the Samuel L. Jackson monologue in Deep Blue Sea, except the audience knows what’s going to happen—which makes the speech’s platitudes all the funnier. Just goes to show you: Filmmakers don’t always know their own movie.
Genevieve: I’m glad you bring up Fran Kranz’s Marty, Scott, because to me, his character keeps The Cabin In The Woods from tipping over from “funny-clever” into “obnoxious-clever.” Somewhat paradoxically, the self-awareness he brings to the proceedings undercuts the film’s winking. That “Do not read the Latin” moment is the perfect example of what could have been an annoyingly nudge-nudge moment. It works because Marty straight-up says it, rather than the script relying on a conspiratorial attitude of, “We see what’s going on here, and you see what’s going on here, but these fools don’t see it!”, which I think is what people are usually reacting to when they accuse a film of being “too clever.”
Speaking of Marty, I love how his character doesn’t play into the easy stoner-humor stereotypes, while still getting a lot of laughs out of the fact that his character is stoned. Sure, he says and does plenty of silly things (“People in this town drive in a very counterintuitive manner”), but he’s never the “fool” the architects want him to be. (The fact that the weed is what keeps him from being susceptible to the Ritual’s chemical proddings is a great touch.) He winds up being the most capable member of this group, and he does it all while totally blazed.
Tasha: Favorite piece of Fran Kranz Cabin In The Woods trivia: He’s really ripped, which is why they had to put him in baggy clothes, keep him kinda hunched over, and keep him out of a bathing suit in the lake scene. (Because here’s what he looks like in the swimming scene in Much Ado About Nothing. Doesn’t exactly fit the comic-relief character, or the surprise-survivor character.) That aside, though, what makes the Marty character and his particular humor work is that it doesn’t derail the plot, even though Marty himself keeps trying to. There’s that moment where he’s in his room and hears the hypnotic whispers of “I think I’ll go for a walk,” and throws a fit about how he can hear the voices, and isn’t going to be manipulated, and is his own man… And then he decides to go for a walk. That’s the movie’s comedy in a nutshell. Self-aware, and commenting on its own tropes, but still finding a way to move forward, and laughing at itself in the process.
Noel: My favorite “commenting on its own tropes” moment in the movie is when The Harbinger is in the middle of a rant about blood and slaughter, and then he stops because he realizes he’s on speakerphone. That’s one of the best comic motifs in the Cabin In The Woods, this idea that people can exist within the modern world, and yet also be part of something primeval. It reminds me of one of my favorite characters in Whedon’s Angel: Sahjhan, a time-hopping demon who talks like a 21st-century smart-ass.
Genevieve: We’ve talked about what a clever horror movie Cabin In The Woods is, and what a funny horror movie it is, while dancing around the actual “horror movie” part. Self-awareness has a way of negating shock value, and as we’ve established, this movie is nothing if not self-aware. So does it still manage to be at all scary through the commentary? As a complete wuss who avoids traditional horror whenever possible, I still spend a good portion of Cabin In The Woods with my hands over my eyes, even though I’ve seen it several times at this point. Part of that is to just shield myself from the gore, which, while not particularly substantial, is effective enough to give me the willies. But it’s the jump-scares in this (and every horror movie) that really get to me, and the sense of creeping dread in the early parts of the film. (Even on this, my fourth viewing, I still half-expect that wolf-head to snap at Jules when she makes out with it.) But those moments of terror are brief and easily shaken off, and I never walk away from Cabin In The Woods with the sort of anxiety and lingering discomfort I usually leave horror movies with. In short: This is a great horror movie for a non-horror fan like myself. But you all are made of stronger stuff than I am in that regard. Is there anything about Cabin In The Woods you find legitimately scary? And if not, do you still consider it “horror” despite the lack of scares?
Tasha: Well, put it this way: I lured three different people to see it over their protests of “I hate horror films, I don’t want to watch a horror film,” and all three of them loved it. It’s horror-comedy, which is a very different genre. And while there are legitimately horrifying moments, they never last long enough to have much impact. The jump-scares are effective—the one where Patience is coming up behind Marty, but Curt gets to him first, makes me yelp every single time, and this was my fifth viewing—but at this point, I consider jump-scares such a cheap, weak trick that I wouldn’t necessarily classify a movie as horror even if it was just Jump Scare: The Wall-To-Wall Shock Experience. What makes The Cabin In The Woods horror for me is the conviction throughout that the protagonists are isolated, physically threatened, and probably doomed to bloody and ignominious ends, and for much of the film, they know it. Horror is in the emotions as much as the tropes, and as silly and jokey as the film gets, it never lets viewers forget that the protagonists are in mortal peril, and up against something stronger, more aware, and more equipped to deal with their situation than they are.
Noel: I recently gave a lecture at a nearby college about what makes some movies “sleep with the lights on” scary vs. “that was fun” scary, and I’d say Cabin In The Woods falls into the latter category, if indeed it’s scary at all. Most of that is due to the tone, which is in no way menacing, but it’s also in the lighting and framing. Compared to the terrifying blackness that fills the frame in late-1970s/early-1980s horror films like Friday The 13th and Halloween, Cabin In The Woods is lit up like an amusement park. It’s more like the latter 1980s Friday The 13th movies, where everything looked like it was shot on a nice, safe soundstage.
Scott: The question with a lot of horror-comedies—and perhaps the reason so few of them get made, and fewer still seem to connect with audiences—is how much the comedy takes away from the horror. If we’re invited to laugh, then how seriously are we supposed to take the mortal peril? For me, there’s always been room for comedy—and drama, and musical numbers, and anything else—in horror, and feeling emotions other than constant dread doesn’t have to take away from the scares. That said, Cabin In The Woods isn’t frightening, beyond a few jump scares, and that doesn’t seem to be high on the agenda anyway. The climactic monster fight could have gone in many different directions, but Whedon and Goddard are primarily concerned with exposing and mocking horror tropes and clichés, so it reads as hilarious. Compare that to something like Ti West’s The Innkeepers, which features plenty of delightful banter between two clerks manning a haunted hotel, but turns the screws to great effect when it wants to. I’m not convinced Wheden and Goddard were all that interested in freaking people out.
Noel: One of the meta-questions Cabin In The Woods raises is what constitutes “heroism” in a closed system, where everyone’s supposed to be following a script. The rules of audience-identification mean we’re supposed to root for these college kids to survive, even though their survival means the extermination of all human life—and even though this goes against the conventions of most “dead teenager movies,” which make their victims so creepy that the audience doesn’t mind seeing them get offed. The people in charge of the ritual give viewers an out in the form of a virginal “final girl” who is allowed to survive, so long as everybody else dies. But Whedon and Goddard give that virgin, Dana, an impossible decision, making it so she has to kill Marty to save the world. This isn’t an uncommon dilemma in a Whedon production. Both Buffy and Angel brought up the “Could you destroy one person to save millions?” problem, and in both cases, the shows came down in favor of saving the single life and looking desperately for some other way to resolve the crisis. But Marty and Dana don’t have time to come up with another way. They choose to blaze up and let Earth be overrun. Even given that the whole movie is a metaphor, does this strike anyone else as kind of irresponsible?
Genevieve: I wouldn’t call it irresponsible so much as nihilistic, predicated on the assumption that any system that not only requires, but happily provides such complicated ritualistic sacrifice doesn’t merit continuation. I don’t think Dana and Marty see their decision to let the world end as the easy way out, but rather the right way out. Whether that’s their decision to make is another question altogether, but there is a hint of martyrdom to the fate they choose for themselves, and by extension, everyone else. If you think of them as representatives of all of humanity, which in this sacrifice scenario, they are, then their actions could be interpreted as a “fuck you” not just on their parts, but on the part of an irrevocably damaged human race.
Tasha: I once spent two hours in an airport arguing over this exact point with my partner. It was the enjoyable kind of argument, because so little was at stake: We both recognize that the whole film is metaphorical, and it ends the way it does not to make a big statement about society, but for drama and excitement. Still, it’s an interesting moral conundrum. His take is essentially that Dana and Marty don’t choose to destroy the world—they just choose not to become murderers or victims on the orders of their persecutors, and the giant alien gods destroy the world. (Think of it like a hostage situation: If a terrorist takes a hostage and makes demands, and the president doesn’t meet those demands, and the terrorist murders the hostage, the president didn’t kill anyone. The terrorist is still the murderer, even if that murder could have been prevented.) I still think this is sophistry. Dana and Marty may be idealistic, or nihilistic, or too exhausted and traumatized to make clear choices, so what they do is understandable, but they’re still directly responsible for the death of 7 billion people. Still seems pretty selfish to me—especially since they’re on their way out, too. On the other hand, after spending hours being manipulated and terrified by people who don’t value their lives, why would they necessarily believe one more person telling them they need to sacrifice those lives?
Tasha: The Cabin In The Woods always comes down to one moment for me. After Dana stabs murderous zombie Matthew Buckner into quiescence, Sitterson hits a switch, and a tiny electrical charge from the knife shocks her. She drops it without even noticing. A minute later, she and her friends are charging out into the night, unarmed—Curt even picks up a splintery board to use as a makeshift weapon, even though they were just in a room full of weapons, even though Dana just had her hands on a couple of weapons that proved effective against undead monsters. The puppetmasters never point out for the audience’s benefit that every weapon in the Black Room is apparently charged; the victims never comment on it either. It’s just a tiny, subtle little gag, touching on why heroes in horror films never seem to do the sensible thing and hang onto their weapons. The fact that it isn’t explained or spotlit is what makes me love it: Everyone who notices it knows why it’s there, and it doesn’t need to be underlined.
Noel: I like the distinction between zombies and the undead redneck Buckner clan. It’s an acknowledgment that for a horror plot to be successful—successful enough to save the world, in this case—it needs to be specific. A mere “slasher” won’t do; it has to be a killer with a backstory, and a gimmick.
Scott: I’ll be getting into this more in my essay tomorrow, but I’m surprised no one has mentioned “The Initiative” subplot of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s fourth season, since it so closely mirrors the monsters-in-enclosures idea advanced by Cabin In The Woods. If you’ll recall, The Initiative is a covert, underground U.S. military operation that sought to control and weaponize the supernatural creatures that tend to spew out of Sunnydale’s Hellmouth. There’s the same covert vibe to the operation in CITW, but the purpose is only half as sinister, since the mission to keep unholy forces at bay is a sound one, even if the blood-sacrifices aren’t so hot.
Tasha: A last note, since I’ve been staring at the Cabin DVD on my desk all week: What’s up with that poster image? It seems to show a cabin floating in mid-air, with three rotated sections, looking vaguely like a Lincoln-log Rubik’s Cube. Is there any meaning to this image, which corresponds to nothing in the film? Is it meant to suggest that the film is a puzzle to be worked out? Is it as literal as “Here’s a cabin with a twist in it?” Or is it just an abstract eye-catcher, suitable for a marketing campaign that’s trying not to spoil anything? Theories welcome.
Yesterday, Tasha Robinson kicked off our Cabin In The Woods discussion with a Keynote on the film’s able use of stereotypes for swift story development. And tomorrow, Scott Tobias closes us out with thoughts on Joss Whedon’s concerns in an age of mechanized death.