[Warning: Major spoilers for The Cabin In The Woods, seasons four and five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Dollhouse ahead.]
When The Cabin In The Woods came out in 2012, many critics concluded it was a parody of slasher movies like Friday The 13th. The title pointed in that direction: Isolating a bunch of good-looking young sinners in a rustic cabin near Lake Skinnydip is a horror formula that co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard are happy to exploit. For those in the know, part of the pleasure of the film is seeing how Whedon and Goddard consciously play on what viewers know about slasher films, from archetypes like the virginal “Final Girl” to decisions so insipid that the characters have to be drugged to make them. (“We should split up. We can cover more ground that way.”) Pulling back to the men in the control room orchestrating the slaughter, Cabin also becomes a film about filmmaking, about the puppetmasters who carry out this ritual bloodletting by choosing from a menu of monsters that vary the result without fundamentally changing it. In many ways, it’s a horror movie for people who roll their eyes at horror movies.
Pull back a little more, however, and The Cabin Of The Woods fits more broadly into the scope of ’00s horror, when successful franchises like Saw and Final Destination dealt in mechanized death, with fate taking the form of some gimmicky contraption that people can’t control. While the Jigsaw Killer in Saw does offer his victims a moral test they can ostensibly pass, he’s also the one setting the deathtraps and dictating the rules of the game; he’s like the playground bully telling some weakling to stop hitting himself. The god of the Final Destination movies also has a plan, though true to form, he works in more mysterious ways, forcing the damned to guess where and when they’ll face the pointy end of his Rube Goldberg machines. There are opportunities for escape in these movies, but nothing as tangible as hand-to-hand combat or dashing for safety; the victims are always playing on someone else’s turf, and having to consider where they stand in the grand design. Their lives aren’t their own.
The Cabin In The Woods reflects a decade of mainstream horror films in which powerlessness was America’s primary anxiety, which is perhaps a natural consequence of living at a time when days are rated in Terror Threat Levels. Death could be right around the corner, and nothing can be done about it; even people who go off the grid, like the quintet of meatsacks in Whedon and Goddard’s film, are on another kind of grid. There’s no escaping the inchoate horrors of the world we’ve created, not even for a weekend getaway. Whedon and Goddard poke fun at the filmmakers who feed these kids through one gear-and-spring-loaded grinder after another, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely above the fray. For Whedon, it’s only the latest instance of an anti-establishment paranoia that’s intensified over the years.
Like any good conspiracy theorist, Whedon starts with a simple idea, then explains it through the opposite of Occam’s Razor. The premise of The Cabin In The Woods: Five friends go to a cabin in the woods, and get attacked by a “zombie redneck torture family.” The reality of The Cabin In The Woods: Five friends go to a cabin in the woods, but it’s monitored and controlled by a secret agency that unleashes monsters around the world as part of an elaborate annual blood sacrifice to appease the “Ancient Ones” who would otherwise destroy Earth. For Whedon, the distance between two points is connected by a squiggly line, which makes sense for a creator of open-ended television shows, where the mythology has to keep spinning out until the ratings tell it to stop. His characters are resourceful enough to figure most of it out—the ones who survive to the end, anyway—but it’s important that the apparatus behind the horror be byzantine, because that’s how conspiracies work.
The roots of Cabin In The Woods’ monster mash can be found in the fourth season of Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer, in which Buffy and the Scoobies contend with an underground military operation called “The Initiative” that seeks to control and weaponize the beasts that spill out of the Hellmouth. In both the show and the film, the monsters are kept in high-tech glass enclosure; in both, their bloody liberation is considered preferable to the lies and oppression involved in their safe containment. Buffy gets involved in The Initiative because she believes they’re fighting on the same side, and because she trusts the ultra-bland soldier who’s courting her. But Whedon has a strong libertarian streak, consistently valuing the individual (or rebel bands like the Scoobies, the Serenity crew, and The Avengers) over any organization of any kind, for any purpose.
The Initiative’s nefarious motives and methods are eventually revealed, but The Cabin In The Woods suggests that even if The Initiative were simply the monster-fighting unit it claimed to be, Whedon might reject them all the same. The film eventually gives two characters the choice between offing themselves in the correct order for humanity’s salvation, or allowing “the Ancient Ones” to have run of the Earth. If they had ownership of this ultimatum—like, say, Buffy does, when she opts to swan-dive into oblivion to save her sister at the end of season five—perhaps they’d choose to sacrifice themselves. But being told they have to make the choice makes the prospect less appealing: Saving humanity is one thing, but forfeiting any fraction of their will to some shadowy government agency puts the human race in “Well, we had a good run” territory. The irony of The Cabin In The Woods is that the victims are the true villains in the end, and the smug controllers putting them through the paces are, in fact, trying to save the world. But it seems doubtful that Whedon and Goddard see it that way.
In the mechanized Whedon-land, winning back the freedom to make choices is ultimately more important than the choices themselves. Though an argument could be made that the characters in The Cabin In The Woods make the wrong choice—I just made that argument above, in fact—the Whedon show that immediately preceded it, Dollhouse, makes The Man’s evil unambiguous. Whedon trojan-horsed an already dark show about memory-wiped human “dolls” who perform services under an endless range of identity types into a high-tech apocalypse managed by the “Rossum Corporation,” which sounds like (and is) one of those rogue corporate/government sub-agencies from 1970s paranoid thrillers. Once again, it’s a pitched battle between individuals trying to reclaim their humanity and freedom, and the puppetmasters who keep them dangling on strings.
Dollhouse is a show—a network show—that started with forced prostitution and got darker from there, concluding with the faint hope that razing the planet may be the best answer to saving it. Better to start again in the dust-choked ruins than to live in the sleek, ultra-modern utopia built by agencies intent on monitoring and controlling every facet of people’s lives. Even in the worst-case scenario at the end of The Cabin Of The Woods, that’s not a world Whedon feels is worth living in. Perhaps “the Ancient Ones” will do better with it.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of The Cabin In The Woods ends here. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote on how the film cannibalizes and overturns horror-movie stereotypes, and Wednesday’s staff forum on the film’s less-fearful, more-funny aesthetic and how it compares to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. You might want to ship next week’s discussion of Amy Heckerling’s 1990s touchstone Clueless… shyeah, right, as if. Are you buggin’?