Something Short & Snappy Hallowthon 2015 presents:
The Cabin In The Woods
Now, as soon as I said 'Joss Whedon writing', most of us could probably guess (with or without seeing the film) that this movie is incredibly proud of how clever it is. Horror movies come with a lot of tropes and cliches--back in the 1990s, Scream revitalised the genre by making a slasher flick full of people discussing slasher flicks, a harbinger of the super-meta media that has rocketed to popularity in the last couple of decades. I don't actually like Scream (not least because that mask fucking terrified me as a child), but I can't deny that it was a clever idea to make a film in which people actually tell each other to do the things that the audience normally has to shout, like 'don't run upstairs, there's no escape there'.
But that's been done now (on through three sequels and a Netflix series), so how can someone brim with satisfaction at their own cleverness now? The same way bad parodies work: force everything to fit to the cliches of the genre at their most extreme, presented utterly without commentary or analysis. TCITW is a movie about a world (spoilers begin here) where humanity managed to seal away some eldritch horrors thousands of years ago and can only keep them sealed by performing a sacrificial ritual every year, which must fit the format of an ultra-typical horror movie. So the movie opens on an underground complex where people are going about what seems like an ordinary semi-industrial office job, which we slowly discover is actually the central control room where they bait a group of young adults into a sealed environment (the titular cabin and woods) and let loose monsters to slaughter them. Real people don't fit the requisite cardboard-cutout characters, of course (the jock, the nerd, the comic relief, the sexpot, and the virgin), so the action of the movie is two-sided: Our Heroes trying to escape monsters in clever ways, and the showrunners manipulating and pushing them back onto the rails like a bad tabletop gamemaster.
Thus, the ordinary is presented as clever because it gets labelled: on their way to the cabin, the kids stop and ask directions from a gruff hillbilly who tells them to turn back, and the scene gets intercut with shots of the showrunners talking about how important it is to the ritual that the kids be warned "by the Harbinger" but continue anyway. All the protagonists start out as intelligent college kids, but (for example) the girl who's supposed to fit the 'slutty' archetype was convinced to dye her hair blonde and dosed with cognition-slowing drugs so she would drag her boyfriend out into the woods to have sex and die. At one point the jock says 'stick together while we search the house', gets a dose of gas from the nearest air vent, turns around again and says 'actually, let's split up to cover more ground'.
They have a gas that makes people think it's a good idea to split the party.
I try to take stories in on their own terms: I'm not criticising TCITW for not being deep, or for not explaining how one invents a gas that makes people think it's a good idea to split the party. The premise is "What if you had to orchestrate a real-life horror movie in order to save the world?" and something like that is just a throwaway joke that everyone's supposed to nod at and move past. (I do greatly prefer the parts where things are actually orchestrated and people break the stereotypes--in keeping with exploitation horror of the past, voyeurism is a big part of the ritual, so they put the nerd in a room next to the final girl where he discovers he's got a one-way mirror to watch her undress. Villainwise, that's a smart move to ratchet up the sexual tension, but the nerd is also not a total skeeze, so he overcomes temptation, warns her about it, and they switch rooms. Naturally, the girl then watches the nerd, who is played by Jesse Williams and therefore hot like fire and hella jacked, take his shirt and belt off before she covers the mirror up again.)
No, if TCITW was just kind of smug about all its tropes and references, I wouldn't take much issue with it: the dialogue is often fun and funny, the cast is excellent, and it raises some interesting moral dilemmas when the heroes find out the truth and have to choose between actively murdering each other or passively ending the world. (I disagree strongly with their conclusion, but more about that in a bit.)
My core problem with the movie is, as you readers have probably guessed, is that it involves Joss Whedon trying to be clever about gendered roles and that is a recipe for disaster. Horror movies in general and slasher flicks in particular have a history of misogyny, sex-shaming, objectification and voyeurism, and sexualised violence against women that hardly needs to be expounded upon here. The bright points are those rare occasions when the tradition of the 'final girl' gets turned into something like an icon of strength, resilience, and courage in women. (Take perhaps the most famous 'final girl', Ellen Ripley of Alien--Sigourney Weaver, of course, shows up in TCITW specifically to explain the trope.) It's sufficiently common that even this movie's 'ritual' incorporates it: as long as everyone else dies and the 'Virgin' suffers, the ritual is complete and she might be allowed to survive and win.
This is too obvious for Joss Whedon's cleverness to abide. No, while the protagonist Dana is a woman, the actual hero of TCITW is Marty, the comic relief. He's resistant to the mind-warping drugs and hypnotic suggestions because he's stoned all the time, he carries a collapsible steel bong that he uses to do battle with the monsters (and successfully takes down the one that tries to kill him personally), and constantly fills the audience surrogate role of 'Hey, maybe we shouldn't do this obviously dangerous thing'. He also locates the secret entrance to the villains' complex, hacks into their equipment, rescues Dana from her monster (after killing his with a trowel), and leads her down to the lower levels to confront the big bads. He gives us the moral of the story as well--society is fundamentally broken and deserves to be wiped out--and the final question of the story is whether Dana will murder him (and save the world) or break the cycle (and let the ancient death gods rise up to slaughter us all).
Except: Dana doesn't even get that moment of agency, because as she's quivering, gun in hand, choosing whether to kill one person by action or billions by inaction, Marty keeps her from noticing the werewolf creeping up behind her and the clock runs down while they're fighting. Afterwards, as they wait for their doom, Dana says she probably wouldn't have done it anyway, but actually letting her make that choice wasn't dramatic enough, apparently.
Raise your hand if you're shocked that Joss Whedon looked at a genre where strong female protagonists occasionally win (while hordes of other women are slaughtered, usually after flashing the audience) and said "No, this will not do, I need to bring something fresh to the table by having a sarcastic scruffy man save the helpless girl and drive the plot." It's not the muscular dude, or the smart dude, or the hot chicks (either flavour, sexy or virginal) who save the day, it's the pseudophilosophical guy with funny lines and weed and no luck with women. Yeah, that's definitely not Whedon's author avatar.
The phrase 'deconstruction' has gotten popular in the recent years, but the meaning has kinda shifted. It's common enough now to use it as we do on this blog, to just mean 'unsympathetic critical analysis', but the word itself is older and more nuanced than that, to the point where I can't even begin to parse the original source material by Derrida. (Neither can a lot of scholars, leading to a bunch of people trying to create secondary explanations that actually make sense.) I'm not going to pretend I understand it either, but I can tell the difference between a meaningful commentary and shouting "Society thinks sex is dirty so the blond slut always dies first!" Like: thanks, Joss. We know. We know that's how it always goes. Are you in fact clever enough to come up with a twist on that, or are you just going to have a lot of people point out that the girl got killed five minutes after going topless and call it groundbreaking? "But what if she was manipulated into doing it?" SHE IS ALWAYS MANIPULATED INTO DOING IT BECAUSE THESE SCRIPTS ARE ALL ARTIFICE. There are no actual choices going on. The only difference this time is that the people in the script are scripted to acknowledging that they're following a script but under no circumstances question it.
Without getting too far into a very different kind of essay, I also want to vent my frustration against the ending and the idea that Our Heroes made the right choice by dooming everyone: in order for someone to say 'society is corrupt and we all deserve to burn' they have to be either the ultimate supervillain or have an incredibly narrow and specific concept of what 'the whole world' means. We're talking about more than seven billion people in the world, all living radically different lives in different circumstances, different choices, different values, different traditions. The typical stoner-philosopher appears to mean "Capitalism is messed up, our government is ineffective, and I can't get laid, so the whole thing might as well burn", which to my mind just shows a lack of interest or creativity. If it's about the atrocities humans have committed in the past, well, we've got almost two billion people under the age of 15 and I'm inclined to give them a chance to do better than us. If it's about the stories we tell supposedly illustrating our inherent corruption, well, show me an Anishinaabe slasher flick or something, because I'm not sure our traditions are as universal as you're claiming.
But I'm getting all Doylist about this instead of interrogating it from within the framework of the movie, where the logic appears to be "Humanity is under constant threat of annihilation by malevolent gods unless we make bloody sacrifices, therefore we deserve to be annihilated by malevolent gods", which... does not flow for me.
The ultimate problem with TCITW, I think, is the nature of the big bad gods behind it. They are meant to stand for us, the audience: one girl has to get naked and die because the gods demand it, people must suffer because the gods demand it, it all has to happen over and over again because if the showrunners don't give the gods what they want, they--that is, we the audience--will rise up and end the world, and frankly that is blatant buck-passing. The closest thing you can get to a 'message' out of TCITW is that these same horror movies keep getting made because that's supposedly what we want, but let's look at the facts: Twilight features blood and monsters and decapitation, but it also features girls who get to live forever with their infinitely-loyal sexbot husbands, and the Twilight movies made more money than you could fit in a cabin in the woods. Google searching suggests to me that the highest-grossing slasher flick of all time, the original Scream, in total grossed about $189 million internationally (adjusted for inflation), whereas the first Twilight laughed that off at an easy $225 million and New Moon hit $326 million.
I'm not saying Twilight is good--what kind of monster do you take me for--but I am saying that in the case of Auteur Joss Whedon vs. We The Demanding And Disgusting Public, the evidence speaks soundly in favour of these things not being how you pander to the plebes. There are no all-powerful market gods demanding that these same exploitation-film cliches get repeated over and over again: these movies get made because filmmakers like to make them. That's the twist TCITW needed: in the end, when they've forced Dana to kill Marty to save everyone else, and everyone agrees that the rituals must go on because that's just how the world works, we find out that the Director is actually just a power-hungry misanthrope who dangles the (false) threat of ancient gods over everyone else because they just really like watching young people die naked.
Guess that was a step of realism too far?