We here at Swampflix watch horror films year round, which is what makes it easy to slap together our annual Halloween Reports. Horror dominates our Movie of the Month selections and our topics for The Podcast. It’s a genre we return to eagerly & frequently no matter what the season. Still, there’s something particularly special about the ritual of watching horror films every October, a month-long celebration of the macabre. As often as we participate in this ritualistic horror binge, though, we rarely step back to think about what the ritual actually means. What’s the significance or the satisfaction of watching all these fictional victims, usually oversexed teenagers, die on camera in all of these ludicrous ways, whether at the hands of a somewhat realistic serial killer or by supernatural monster? The 2012 meta horror comedy Cabin in the Woods, delivered by Joss Whedon & close collaborator Drew Goddard, strives to answer that question on a philosophical level. The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, The Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.
In essence, The Cabin in the Woods is two separate, competing films at once. One film is the most basic teens-hunted-by-zombies picture you can imagine, except equipped with the stagey nerd humor Whedon’s built his career around. The other film is a glimpse into the writer’s room & packed cinemas that would cruelly put those teens in zombie peril in the first place. A remote, NSA-reminiscent science lab is in the midst of an annual ritual where they lure a group of unsuspecting teens into a controlled environment (complete with the titular cabin) and influence them through chemicals & electronics to live out basic horror archetypes (the jock, the nerd, the whore, the fool, the final girl), effectively leading lambs to the slaughter. They’re horror directors in this way. Their predetermined, controlled environments are essentially genre tropes, horror convention. When they drug the victims of their rat maze to increase their libido or lower their intelligence they’re essentially writing their doom into a live-action screenplay. Curiously enough, they serve as the audience as well as the creator, watching enraptured as their victims are cruelly murdered and even, in a scene more or less lifting directly from Heathers, casually partying while someone is brutally assaulted in the background. It’s a high concept dynamic that not everyone will be game for, but it’s one that leads to some surprisingly smart, bleak self-analysis. As much as I enjoyed other recent meta horror comedies like The Final Girls or John Dies at the End that approached similar thematic territory, there’s a dedication and a follow-through to The Cabin in the Woods that I believe to be unmatched by its genre peers.
Something I greatly resect in this film is its openness about what it’s doing. The film begins from the perspective of the science lab, where a lesser work would’ve saved the artificiality of the environment for a last second reveal. The best part about The Cabin in the Woods is that it tips its hand so early, leaving the only true mystery to be when, exactly, its two competing films are going to meet and how much of a disaster it will be. The film is patient with the payoff of those two worlds clashing, but also so thorough and so ambitious with its follow-through that waiting for the hammer to fall is actually a large part of its appeal. A straightforward zombie picture set in the woods would’ve rang formulaic & hollow, no matter how much Whedon’s spin on the dialogue attempted to set it apart, to the point where a go-for-broke third act reveal of the influence of the science lab would’ve played like a cheat. Instead, we get a full-length reflection on how the two films interact, a dynamic that has a lot to say about how horror audiences interact with film in general. It’s pretty rare to see something that confident & dedicated play out on the screen, no matter what genre.
I can comfortably say I’m far from the biggest Whedon fan. His Avengers work is fairly decent (and it’s cool to see him writing for a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth as an idiot jock here), but I’m not the right kind of pop culture nerd who wistfully daydreams about the good ol’ days of Firefly or Buffy. I’m ambivalent. If The Cabin in the Woods were merely one of those Whedon productions that take place in an alternate universe where teens & 20 somethings always have something clever to say, I wouldn’t have been onboard, which is probably why it took me so long to watch it in the first place. I don’t know if it was the collaborative effort with Goddard (who, sadly, hasn’t helmed another film before or since) or what, but Whedon’s usual schtick is still detectable here, except put to a career-high effectiveness that actually makes his dedication to cleverness count for something. The way The Cabin in the Woods dismantles horror tropes and holds a (two-way) mirror up to the audience who would typically eat them up is, without question, pure brilliance. I can’t think of a better film to recommend during the Halloween season, when binging on formulaic horror is at its peak ritualistic significance. The places this film takes you in its third act alone will add clarity & perspective to your horror watching habits in a way most films could only dream of, all while delivering a satisfactory dose of the very tropes you lust after as a bloodthirsty audience. I could see making screenings of this movie an annual ritual of its own, if not only to hold onto the way it enhances enjoyment of the other, less mindful horrors I’ll be watching anyway.