GREAT FILMS: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (USA, 2012)
Directed by Drew Goddard
Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz

When I reviewed The Dark Knight Rises back in August, I commented that the attention being given to The Avengers had obscured or dampened the enthusiasm for what was arguably the more interesting of the two films. The same could be said of The Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods, which is, put simply, the best Joss Whedon film of 2012.
Of course, giving The Cabin in the Woods this moniker is pretty misleading. It's not strictly a Joss Whedon film, in that he produced and co-wrote it but was not behind the camera. It's not strictly a 2012 film, since it was completed in 2009 but then sat on a shelf during the collapse of MGM. During this time its release was repeatedly delayed, and there was talk of retrofitting it into 3D (talk which ultimately came to nothing). Most of all, this moniker feels like damning with faint praise, since even without Whedon's welcome involvement, this is a genuinely great horror film.
I've often praised or singled out horror films which were made by people with great affection for the genre. But The Cabin in the Woods has something extra: it's made by people who want to celebrate horror, while also pointing out where it needs to develop. Whedon described the film as a "loving hate letter" to horror, reflecting his desire to move it away from the sadistic excesses of so-called 'torture porn'. And in director Drew Goddard he has the perfect partner-in-crime: they collaborated on Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before the latter found success with Cloverfield.
A good way to illustrate Whedon and Goddard's intent is to compare the film to another recent horror pastiche, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. One of the few problems with Eli Craig's debut was that it never quite put its foot down and tried to break new ground beyond the satire of its comic conceit. While the film was primarily a comedy, and therefore its main concern was to make us laugh, there was still a niggling feeling that it could have been slightly more adventurous.
Whatever Tucker & Dale lacks, in ambition or visual distinction, The Cabin in the Woods has it in spades. The film looks fantastic, with the cold steel of the technical facility being offset by the glossy, frat-boy aesthetic which surrounds our main protagonists. The film is shot by Peter Deming, whose credits include Evil Dead 2, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and all the Scream sequels. He manages to recreate the feisty, edgy quality of Whedon's TV work while still giving us an expansive cinematic world, beyond which dark and unspeakable forces lurk.
In terms of its narrative or thematic innovation, The Cabin in the Woods finds Whedon taking one of the oldest horror stories in the book and deconstructing or dismembering it with ruthless intelligence. Some critics have found the experience to be too mechanical, saying that Whedon is indulging his own cleverness and that the film won't hold up to repeat viewings. While it remains to be seen how much the film will give second time around, all other reservations can be swiftly debunked.
If nothing else, Goddard and Whedon's recreation of classic horror tropes and images is immaculate. The titular cabin is a very deliberate recreation of the cabin from the Evil Dead series, and the events that occur therein nod very prominently to the second film. The mirror scene is a nod towards Ash's reflection trying to strangle him, the wandering zombie hand speaks for itself, and the scene were Jules makes out with the moose's head is a nice little send-up of the moment where the moose and lamp become possessed and start laughing at Ash (who in turn laughs back).
The rest of the film's iconography is slightly more veiled. In the sequence in the cellar, our teenagers find a whole series of trinkets and artefacts, all of which (unbeknownst to them) could cause their doom. But rather than have them encounter anything too obvious, like a chainsaw or a hockey mask, Whedon gives the audience something they might vaguely recognise but which appears original enough to remain threatening. The puzzle ball is a subtle nod to Hellraiser, but this only becomes confirmed when we encounter its owner, who has saws in his head instead of nails.
Hanging over the whole film are two key texts, one rooted in horror, the other in science fiction. The science fiction text is The Truman Show, from which the film takes the idea of a world enclosed by an impregnable dome, in which everything from the weather to the chemical impulses of the characters are carefully controlled. From this there is also a resemblance to Marc Evans' My Little Eye: Goddard takes that film's thesis of reality TV being the new pornography, and extrapolates it into a wider study of voyeurism and submission to a greater will.
The horror roots of The Cabin in the Woods lie in H. P. Lovecraft and his concept of the Old Ones. Lovecraft's universe was one in which humanity was utterly helpless and insignificant, totally unable to prevent the upcoming return of imprisoned, ancient gods. The lines about the Ancient Ones slumbering refer clearly to those famous words in 'The Call of Cthulu': "In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." The technicians are offering up the innocent as a sacrifice to the Ancient Ones because there is nothing else we can do but appease them, hoping and praying that they may wait a little longer to devour us.
Purely as a genre exercise or a sideways look at Lovecraft, The Cabin in the Woods is an unqualified success. Certainly on the latter front, it is a lot more focussed and coherent than previous attempts, such as John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness. Although the characters are archetypal, they are well-written and feel distinctive, so that we care about them even when they are required to be stupid. The film benefits from a fantastic central performance by Kristen Connolly, whose character manages to subvert the final-girl cliché while still making her resourceful and strong.
But the greater triumph of The Cabin in the Woods is the insights it gives into the mechanics of horror. This is ultimately what separates from Tucker & Dale and other such films, and elevates it into a level of medium analysis approaching that of Peeping Tom. The film is not just a hybrid of Lovecraft and Truman, in which we are pitiful beings manipulated into saying lines to ensure the survival of our species. It is about how horror is created, how fear manifests itself, and how we strive futilely to contain our worst nightmares.
By making the central story so choreographed, Whedon is making a point about how horror films are assembled. The ease with which the technicians treat their job, to the point of holding sweepstakes on the outcomes, is a jab at how mechanical and formulaic mainstream horror has become. As the Lovecraft elements begin to encroach, the film enters more ritualistic territory, and like the characters in Berberian Sound Studio we become complicit in the ritual. The voyeurism of the technicians reflects our own desires, whether to be scared masochistically (which Whedon celebrates) or to delight sadistically in another's pain (which he condemns).
The conclusion of The Cabin in the Woods is about how we as a species deal with fear. Having the teenagers choose the means of their own death reflects the idea that our fears are shaped by deep-rooted personal trauma. These feed into our shared culture, resulting in the horror movie monsters we know. Perhaps the scariest shot in the whole film is our two survivors, screaming in a box surrounding by thousands of other boxes, each containing a different monster, a different concentration and expression of human fear. But despite all the elaborate protocols and rituals, fear wins the day, reinforcing the story's Lovecraftian despair.
The Cabin in the Woods is a quite remarkable film which sets the bar extremely high for future horror deconstructions. Goddard directs with confidence and panache, while Whedon's welcome fingerprints on both the script and visuals make for a fiercely intelligent thrill ride. Only time will tell if it holds up to repeat viewing, or whether its small moments of slow pacing will inhibit casual viewers' ability to enjoy it. For now it deserved to be celebrated, as a well-oiled horror film and an open invitation to re-examine the genre we love.