The Cabin in the Woods opens in a sterile environment, white walls ascend to high ceilings, and two scientist-looking types discuss child-proofing homes as they climb into a golf cart. Some of the tertiary conversation is vague: a young woman dressed in a white coat mentions that other countries have failed and only the Japan and the United States are left. There are vague references to “something bigger,” and then the title screams onto the screen like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. The music is jarring, but gives way to a scantily clad young woman packing a suitcase in preparation for a weekend away at Curt’s (Chris Hemsworth) cousin’s cabin.
The setup here is pedestrian for a horror film, but The Cabin in the Woods is well aware of this, taking every opportunity to allude to and then debunk well-worn clichés. There is blood, evisceration, disemboweling, impaling, and the gratuitous bare breasts, but this is not your average slasher flick. Rather, it’s a look at slasher films through at least two lenses: one being the reality television generation; the other being Genesis – or perhaps more appropriately, Paradise Lost.
As our barely dressed Dana (Kristen Connolly) gets ready for her trip, she’s joined by her best friend, the newly blonde Jules (Anna Hutchison), first tries to soften Dana’s recent breakup with her Professor, decrying him for “fucking his student” and “breaking up her via email.” Here, we have the woman scorned, who also happens to be an academic, a ripe equation for the virginal character in a horror movie. However, she’s not really a virgin, and she’s not the only academic. Both Curt and Holden (Jesse Williams) are in Honors classes and have high G.P.As. Likewise, Jule’s blonde hair and dismissal of academic school books, along with her short short shorts brand her the de defacto whore, but this is also inaccurate, something that will be further addressed in a bit.
From the outset, the expected twist is also prohibited. Most horror films have a double or triple agent mixed in among the brood of alcohol-swilling, sex-flaunting teens. Here, the conspirators are the first people we see. Their white dress coats and ambiguous dialog relay conspiracy. Our villains are revealed, and we wait for the interaction, which begins when the five twentysomethings pile into an RV: a stealthy man with a Secret Service-like wire in his ear notifies someone that the five are on their way. This leaves us no need to ferret out which one of our main characters is potentially evil, and allows the characters to develop, something that this film does rather well, which sets it apart from many mediocre horror films. The acting plays a large part in this film’s success as well. The lines are delivered convincingly, and there is no real unnecessary exposition.
As our five near their destination, they must stop for gas at the only place available: a run-down gas station operated by Mordecai, or, according to our scientists Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), the Harbinger who “practically wears a sign that says, ‘You will die’.” Unfazed by his creepiness, our group makes their way to the cabin, but the audience becomes privy to the larger conspiracy in formation: the imminent death of our protagonists is for someone’s amusement. All of their movements are recorded and broadcast to our scientists and those “downstairs,” which directly connects these events to a reality-television premise. There are a number of tropes employed here that link violence and desensitization, but the onus is placed more on the architects of this scenario, who have a heavier hand in our characters’ agency than they do themselves. The primary example here brings us back to Jule and her newly blonde hair, which, we find after she makes out with a stuffed wolf, was dyed with a product containing heavy doses of pheromones. The same manipulation occurs with Curt, whose academic genius, is overtaken by beer spiked with ultra-amplifying drugs.
Clearly, this could be a mirror on the accusations that producers ply their contestant with alcohol and throw in a touch of sleep deprivation to create drama in front of the camera. At the same time, the characters are manipulated to prompt transgression. The transgression is necessary to prompt death. And death is necessary to appease those “in control.” Here, “sex” doesn’t equal ratings, but a justification for death. In a sense, The Cabin in the Woods removes spiritual intervention often associated with sex = death (see Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and exposes it as actions via a puritanical society. There are preternatural creatures here – far too many to list; in fact, our five are at the whim of the Buckners, a zombie family risen from the grave – but these sources of nightmares are manifestations brought about by the inefficacy of social prudence. In other words, something had to create the urban legends that inflict fright in sex-craving teens. Those somethings are people in a room.
This is another area in which The Cabin in the Woods impressed me. It doesn’t merely create a clever narrative, but also satirically points out the flaws in this setup. If transgressions equal death, but transgressions arise from an unseen, external agent, then the ubiquity associated with transgressions is inaccurate and overblown. To put it through the lens of reality television: The Jersey Shore is ubiquitous, but those on the show are neither from Jersey, nor representatives of people 23-30. Therefore, one does not necessarily qualify as the other. To take this setup one step further: it’s kind of like God’s interdiction to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Like Adam and Eve, our five are given a bit of land and the right to walk around naked. At the same time, both stories rely on the Fortunate Fall. In terms of religion, Adam and Eve needed to fall – or eat the pomegranate / apple / cumquat – in order to prove that they had free will. If they hadn’t eaten the forbidden fruit, thus denying God’s interdiction, there would be no way to prove they had free will, and “choice” would be a fallacy. The same is true Dana, Curt, Jules, Marty, and Holden, and the logic is just as wonky. The initial interdiction comes from our creepy, wide-eyed Harbinger, a man whose warning would be heeded just like any inarticulate, grimy man on the street who screams “the end is nigh!” or any well-dressed septuagenarian who proclaims the world is ending…again. Granted, the Harbinger is not God-like, but, similar to Genesis, our characters don’t think of succumbing to temptation until a separate agent enters the picture. In Genesis, it’s a serpent who promises that the fruit provides unbelievable power. In The Cabin, it’s a button that opens a hatch to a cellar stocked full of goods and trinkets.
Here, both the fruit and the cellar are innocuous, and aside from the unsanitariness, there’s nothing truly ominous about it – or an apple. In both instances, it is curiosity that is piqued and provoked, not transgression. Yet, both acts are somehow equated with sin and sexuality, which are, in turn, linked to death and punishment. Perhaps I’ve taken some liberties here, but there are a number of references to “right” and “wrong” in the film, and these “rights” and “wrongs” are all predicated on the illusion that the five are given choices; however, the opportunities for these choices – much like in the Bible – don’t come naturally. They are manipulated and manipulated again for someone / something else’s gain.
In truth, this film is not just about the cabin, and, in fact, our characters only spend out a third of the time in the cabin. The rest is spent elsewhere, uncovering the grand conspiracy that has trapped them and us. Again, this is a bit like Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise. Perhaps people remember it most – aside from the whole crucifixion thing – because it happens in the first book, or perhaps it’s the foundation for a number of lessons about sin, honesty, obedience, and transgression. For such a brief chapter, and one that contradicts itself three time over in the first ten verses, its impact resonates. The same can be seen in a film where the acts of five individuals controls the fate, and acts as the basis of urban legends and wives tales the rest of existence is so familiar with.
Admittedly, the end is the weakest part – or rather, the cameo at the end. It seems a bit odd, expository, and out of place, as if I had suddenly been transported to The Clash or Wrath of the Titans. However, I’m not sure if I would have been happy with the alternative. A neat little bow wouldn’t do here. I choose carnage.