The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Cabin in the Woods

Written by James Zborowski.

Photo from the article The Cabin in the Woods begins with a calculatedly banal scene. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, the two middle aged members of the film’s top-billed cast, exchange small talk about family planning and the absurdity of child-proofing cupboards and drawers before conception has even occurred (as one of the pair’s spouses has). As they talk, they walk (and are transported on a buggy) around their high-tech but grey work environment. In neither their conversation nor their appearance do these men come across as high-powered. This opening exchange between them is sustained long enough for the viewer to begin to wonder what the point of it might be, given that relevant exposition seems thin on the ground (surely the child-proofed storage won’t become a horror device later in the film?!). If this exchange has no purpose, at what point will it be brought to an end? It is stopped by a sudden freezing of the action, which is accompanied by the film’s title, superimposed in red capitals that fill the screen. The effect is slightly arch, rather cheeky, and pretty funny. We are being gently teased here: how do these suits belong to the world of the horror movie?

If the movie were paused at this point and an unprepared viewer was asked to offer an answer to this question, they might hypothesise that these characters and their milieu are being used as a baseline of normality which will be disrupted by some form of threat or trauma. (In his Guardian review, Peter Bradshaw interestingly suggests that we might at first entertain the possibility that these characters are parents to the young victims-in-the-making whom we cut to next.). The film critic Robin Wood once offered ‘Normality is threatened by the monster’ as a formula for much horror. (Point of scholarly interest: co-writer of Cabin’s screenplay Joss Whedon has enthused in public about Wood’s criticism, and even named a principal character in the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Robin Wood.) So it comes as a surprise when we learn that Sitterson (Jenkins) and Hadley (Whitford) are the film’s puppet masters. They run an organisation that uses high-tech surveillance, environmental control and supernatural beasts to guide what to its victims seems like a series of decisions taken of their own free will, including an initial decision to pile into a camper van and light out for the hills.

What a concept! Immediately, one’s brain starts running through the implications and resonances. A speech by Marty, the ‘stoner’ character amongst the five teens (played by Fran Kranz, with the same nervous energy and offbeat charm that he brings to character of Topher Brink in Whedon’s Dollhouse, which explores some of the same thematic territory as The Cabin in the Woods), provides us with one set of terms to work with. Whilst rolling a joint, Marty tells his fellow passengers that the point of the retreat is to ‘get off the grid’, and opines that the fundamental malady of contemporary society is not that it is crumbling but that it is overly rigid. The idea that the era of modernity and the machine is overly rational, instrumental, bureaucratic, and as a consequence stultifying, is a pervasive one, which goes back at least to the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century triumvirate of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. The turn of the screw provided by The Cabin in the Woods is that the bureaucrats are in control (or so they suppose) of supernatural beasts.

Rather than normality being threatened by the monster, then, the entrenched powers, pulling the strings from behind the scenes, are using monsters to enact rituals that maintain the status quo. The loop is closed. (This is a turn that will not be unfamiliar to anyone who knows Whedon’s other work - the connection between the Alliance and the Reavers that is revealed in Serenity (2005), the motion picture resuscitation of the cancelled and much-mourned Firefly (2002), is the example that springs to mind.) The Cabin in the Woods has great fun with the clashes between the iconographies of the rational and the irrational.

This underpins the orgy of blood and destruction at the film’s climax, when beasts and ghouls decimate men with masks and machine guns. It is also what underlies the humour of an earlier moment, when one of the organisation’s external operatives is put through to the control room (with its bank of monitors and other gadgets), and breaks off from a rhetorical flow whose diction and vocabulary conjures up an old world of blood sacrifices and ancient rituals (‘cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin...’) to ask ‘Am I on speakerphone?’ (It ought to be added that this marriage of the rational and the irrational is itself not a new connection. Theodor Adorno, for example, saw the irrationality - and the popularity - of astrological columns in the newspapers of his day as emerging from the prevailing rationalism that surrounded them just as much as they ostensibly swam against such a current. ‘Rationalised’ and mechanised labour divides the world up so that it becomes difficult to understand how the parts fit together, and at the points where explanations come to an end, myth and magic are free to re-enter.)

The Cabin in the Woods, however, has a more specific allegorical axe to grind, and this is where the problems begin. The people who pull the strings do not only embody instrumental rationality; as the film proceeds, we gradually deduce that, more specifically, they are meant to personify the logic of the horror genre. In a standard horror film (I will come back to this phrase), the filmmakers, from a position off the screen and outside the film’s world, pull the strings. At their best they are like the authors envisaged by novelist Gustave Flaubert, who suggested that the artist in her or his work should be like God in creation: ‘present everywhere and visible nowhere’. The puppeteers in The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, are visible to the viewers, and eventually become visible to some of their victims too.

Why is this a problem? I do not propose to linger on the issue that I spent a lot of time with in my alternate Alternate Take on The Hunger Games as it does not seem particularly relevant here. If The Cabin in the Woods were trying to point a finger at the creators or the viewers of horror movies (or reality television, for that matter; like The Hunger Games, plugging Cabin into this genre does not, I think, offer much purchase) by implying an analogy between killing real people and fictionally representing slaughter, then that would be a problem - but it is not something that the film appears particularly interested in doing. Another potential pitfall to which I think the film, on the whole, does not succumb, is to create an overly simplified version of the horror genre against which to score easy points. Personifying the logic of the genre presupposes that we agree on quite a few of the details of that logic. It relies, to some extent, upon the idea of a ‘standard horror film’. Tonally, this could produce problems, but I do not think it does.

The greater problem, I would suggest, is that when you personify conventions, you create people who need motives for what they are doing. We may, of course, wish to relate film conventions back to the mental horizons and motivations of the artists who deploy them. Nevertheless, it is in relation to the matter of why the bureaucrats are doing what they do that the film’s drama comes into conflict with its allegory.

The clandestine nature of the organisation that orchestrates the horror is matched by the way that the film drops crumbs of information that only very gradually allow the viewer to place the actions and behaviour we witness in a fuller context. For quite a lot of the film, we can suppose that we are watching the actions of the powerful and bored. A whiteboard in the control room is used to organise a sweepstake amongst staff, who bet on which particular monster will be unleashed to terrorise and kill the victims (merman? zombie redneck torture family? Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain?). ‘We’re not the only people watching’, one of the operatives tells another, hinting that the voyeurism of a wider audience is being catered to (perhaps a television audience or, in the style of My Little Eye [2002], an internet audience).

Another idea that the film explores is that the task at hand is divided into parts so that most of the people involved are, to use a famous phrase, alienated from the end product of their labours (and are being told what to do, and can tell themselves that they are fulfilling a role that someone else could, and would, fill if they refused), and that this allows inhuman tasks to be carefully, and professionally, organised and executed. At certain points in The Cabin in the Woods we effectively see a dramatisation of the common view that events like the Holocaust are one possible ‘end of the line’ for modernity (an idea carefully explored by Zygmunt Baumann in his book Modernity and the Holocaust). This is what we might see behind the internal spirit of competition that exists between the chemistry, the engineering and the research and development teams within the organisation, who are focused on perfecting their part in the system at the expense of fully acknowledging that system’s ultimate function. And when one of the victims is being brutally attacked by a beast on a big screen while the organisation celebrates its supposed triumph, and we hear one character ask another, ‘Do you know if we get the overtime bonus on this one?’, and see another be snubbed in his romantic advance towards a colleague with a pair of ballet tickets, we can perhaps see an instance of a now-clichéd phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in relation to the Holocaust, ‘the banality of evil’.

These metaphors and themes thus take us back to the general critique that I have suggested the film begins with, but at the same time they take us some distance away from the allegorical strand that makes the organisation a personification of the workings of the horror genre. Neat-and-tidiness is a liability in most films, and allegories are probably no exception. A few rough edges, and a target of something other than the bullseye or the nose in at least some details, are almost certainly necessary if the film is to keep breathing. But in this case the film’s logic, or more to the point, its logics, conflict a little too much, with the result that when trying to think through all its allegorical strands, they frequently run into walls, or each other, rather than being mutually enriching.

One of the details of the film’s allegory has the surprising effect of imposing a greater burden of ‘realism’ upon the film than might be expected of the horror genre as a whole. In perhaps the most clever-clever moment of the film, the scientist character played by Amy Acker is congratulated for making one of the female victims less sharp of mind by placing a drug in her blonde hair dye. Later, we see that the victims’ ‘decisions’ to have sex outside and to split up in reaction to being (to recall the taglines referred to at the beginning of my short review) are in no small part chemically induced by the organisation, who have the environment rigged in such a way that they can release substances that have these effects in any location within the woods where they are required.

Staying broad for a moment, the connections to, say, targeted advertising are intriguing. Returning to horror movies, however, the implication seems to be: victim-characters in ‘the standard horror movie’ act dumb because that is how the filmmakers make them; those in this film act dumb only when they are chemically induced to do so. If the film thus raises the bar when it comes to what we might expect in terms of character depth and development, then it fails to rise to that heightened level. At the beginning of the film, two characters discuss economics textbooks, and later in the film, some dialogue reminds us that the hyper-masculinity and -femininity being exhibited by two of the group is out of character. The film, however, neither provides details/moments of engagement when building its characters nor constructs its gory scenarios in ways that bring us close to its characters (the closest thing to an exception to this amongst the characters is Fran Kranz’s Marty, but this derives at least as much from the inherent charisma of the performer as from what he is given to work with here). Most reviewers of the film can therefore be forgiven for ignoring the (slightly clunky) preliminary textbook dialogue and subsequent fleeting ‘they’re not usually like that’ moment, and instead describing the characters as fulfilling rather than challenging stereotypes.

It is eventually revealed that the blood of the five victims is required as a sacrifice to placate some angry and restless gods that lie beneath. So the members of the organisation weren’t offering an elaborate, sadistic and titillating spectacle as entertainment; they were trying to save the world. This might cause us to look back upon the quips of Sitterson and Hadley in particular as instances of gallows humour in the face of a grisly but necessary and philosophically justifiable mission. Equally, we might still see a disconnect for the members of the organisation between actions and reasons, even if the ultimate reasons are immeasurably elevated by the twist. This notion of a sacrifice is offered as the explanation for the victims being manoeuvred into stereotypes: the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool and the virgin are the categories of sacrifice that, we are told, the ritual demands. (When Dana, the closest thing the film has to a ‘final girl’, raises an eyebrow at her characterisation as a virgin, she is told ‘We work with what we have.’) The justification for the sadistic manner in which the blood is acquired feels a little less convincing: Dana and Marty are simply told that they are being punished for their youth (an idea which relates back to comments Drew Goddard has made in interviews about what happens in horror movies).

Dana and Marty are then faced with a choice. Either Marty dies, the gods are satisfied, and civilisation continues (for now), or he refuses to sacrifice himself and the gods are unleashed, probably destroying the whole of humanity. How do we square this with the horror movie allegory strand of the film? Assuming we are meant to at all, the logic might go as follows. Horror movies, like most genres, contain secular myths, and their telling and retelling enacts and secures consent for things the way that they are. For as long as we agree to keep creating and consuming the same myths, we will never break out of the cycle. But if we agree to change, or even abandon, the script, and start telling each other different stories, then we can change things.

If this is what the choice is meant to mean, then that meaning clashes with other implications of the options available to Marty (and Dana). The final couple refuse to complete the ritual, and the result would appear to be apocalypse - the last image we see is a giant hand rising up from the earth and reaching out to grab US! Horror movies will often revel in apocalypse, taking delirious and perverse pleasure in a surrender to chaos. There is certainly plenty of this going on in The Cabin in the Woods. However, although I am perhaps being too literal, I think there is a competing way to read the film’s final moments, one which takes us back to Marty’s speech near the beginning (which, even as he delivers it, feels like a thematic reference point).

Marty, as mentioned above, talks of the retreat to the cabin in the woods as getting off the grid - a particularly good and important thing to do, an act of independence and resistance, in a world of bureaucracy, global positioning and surveillance. His words ring through the movie (and as much as Dana, Marty represents the film’s locus of positive value, or ‘moral centre’), and are sharply recalled at the moments where first a bird and then a member of the group are prevented from crossing the ravine by a grid-like forcefield that only becomes visible when something comes into contact with it. Did the film have to make Marty’s choice a choice between human society as it is currently organised and total apocalypse? Even though we are working with the genre of horror, which will often invite its viewer to treat the latter as an allegory for the end of the former (that is, change rather than wholesale annihilation), a distinction between these two possibilities can still be made by a horror film, and, I want to say (at the risk of committing the critical sin of asking for a different movie), possibly should have been made by this one. The idea that we have just two alternatives - the world as it is now or total anarchy and annihilation - is a conservative fantasy of the first order.

In acting as he does, Marty is exercising his free will, as he has throughout (marijuana, we learn towards the end, has made him immune to the chemicals that have been used to control the others!). Free will is as strong a contender as any for being at the absolute thematic core of the Whedonverse. It is at the heart of the humans’ struggle with the demons in Buffy, Angel’s struggles with the demon inside in his spinoff series, the crew of Serenity’s battle with the Alliance in Firefly, and Caroline/Echo’s battle with the Rossum corporation in Dollhouse. Marty - and, I would say, the film with him - begins by arguing that the erosion of free will and the scope for exercising it is what is killing humanity, and ends by exercising his free will and, in the process, killing humanity. The choices available at the end not only fail to make available a distinction between social change and apocalypse; they fail to drive a wedge between free will/resistance and self-interest/solipsism.

To go back once more to the poster taglines: when faced with a threat, the group decide to work together until something injected into the air (call it the logic of capitalism) by the organisation tells them that their interests would be better served if they split up. To present repressive and/or stultifying organisations, which hammer people into particular shapes and make them serve particular ends, in a negative light is an important and valid current task for contemporary art. But there is a flipside to this coin. Unless free will can be brought - in the stories that we tell to one another, and in our lives - into closer alignment with collective action, so that we can consciously and collectively act in our own best long term interests (that is, rationally), then perhaps we are all doing our bit to invite the end. This is a troubling notion, but one worth heeding.

This Alternate Take was published on May 10, 2012.

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