SPOILERS: Several twists and the ending are discussed at length.
What you want to take away from The Cabin in the Woods depends on how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go. If you want to enjoy it as a deconstruction of the horror genre, the film is rife with all kinds of commentary. Or if you wanted to analyses the nature of the spectatorship in the horror film, there’s plenty to dissect here.
Backing off from the heavier meta elements, the film also works as a fun horror comedy, playing off of horror conventions to develop some funny gags. If you want to go even deeper, you can argue the film is an exploration of why horror as a genre even exists and what it has to say about humanity, morality and god. I, of course, plan on tackling all of these points of entry.
The key conceit that opens up all of these levels of audience engagement is that an otherwise pedantic series of horror happens are being elicited by a group of scientists who are manipulating the chemistry of the participants and unleashing the supernatural evil upon them. The scientists motivation, as two of the victims later discover, is the preservation of humanity as they’re performing a ritual that keeps the gods appeased.
As a tool to pick apart the horror genre, the running commentary of the two men operating the house of horrors, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bardley Whitford) offers up a playful critique of how utterly placid, predictable and conventional the turn of events plays out. Of course the group is going to check out the creepy basement and of course they are going to end up unleashing some evil upon them.
However, this is undercut by the fact that all these events are being directed in order to create a more “satisfying” display for the gods in order to make the sacrifices more appeasing to their requirement for blood. This means that chemist Lin (Amy Acker) is cooking up pheromones that allow them to manipulate how people behave. Therefore, the reason why the hot couple have sex in the woods or the group decides to split up is not because they actually want to, but because they’re being directed a certain way in order to make for deaths that are more tense, suspenseful and pleasing to the “gods,” in this case, a stand-in for the audience.
This implicates the audience’s desire for this process of pain. One of the victims ask why they don’t just do it old school, a stone slab, a dagger and a quick thrust, but it seems that this process of pain and suffering is part of the process. It’s not enough that the characters be killed; they must be punished for their transgressions.
This conceit works on two levels. The first speaks to audience spectatorship. Somewhere in the human psyche, there’s something cathartic about this process of violence, not just the act of killing, but the entire process. The suspense, tension and threat of death and then the final release of the sacrificial killing speaks to the pleasure of horror films. It’s not just a catharsis of death; it’s a catharsis of physical suffering.
The other level exists on the moral playing field. The horror genre is underpinned with the idea of people being punished for their wrongdoings. Ever since a mother told their child a chilling tale in order to get them to go to bed or behave well, the horror story has functioned as a recognition that bad people deserved to be punished. It’s why religious people, such as director Scott Derrickson, have argued horror is the most religious genre of fiction. After all, religion recognizes that bad people deserve punishment.
The screenplay of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard complicate this age old underpinning of the horror genre by positioning the victims of The Cabin in the Woods as religious sacrifices. If these are people being offered up for a sacrifice, is it really because they are bad people, or because people in power want to sacrifice people in ignorance in order to save themselves? Are the religious haves persecuting the pagan have-nots?
These questions linger until last act becomes a revenge film. Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz) survive the horrors and make their way into the complex underneath the cabin where all these scientists are pulling the strings. The survivors decide to turn the tables and unleash all the monsters on the scientists. All of a sudden, this cycle of punishment isn’t a sacrifice, it’s judgment on the horrible, amoral scientists.
While the young, hot coeds suffered a hillbilly zombie attack, the scientist placed bets, drank and lusted (after one of the coeds), which just so happens to be the kind of activities that get punished time and time again in the horror genre. This suggests that the real judgment and punishment in the film is the scientists getting their just deserts for their trivialization of human life and general wicked behavior.
The final sequence in the film present Marty and Dana with a choice: The Director (Sigourney Weaver) explains that they can either kill Marty—who was supposed to die in the ritual—and save humanity by appeasing the gods, or let Marty live and unleash the wrath of the gods upon the Earth. Ultimately, the two decide to let humanity die. Marty refuses to give himself up as a sacrifice.
Whedon and Godard ask: at what point should this judgment stop? Should a few be sacrificed for the many when the many are just as wicked and depraved as the few? Don’t the scientists deserve to die more than the coeds? But don’t Marty and Dana also deserve to die for slaughtering all the scientists? Where does this wrath and judgment stop? It ultimately doesn’t. So then everyone deserves to die.
If The Cabin in the Woods sounds like it ends in such bleakness, it’s because it deals in the supreme absolute that if people deserve to die for doing bad things, then everyone deserves to die. It’s delivered with Whedon’s wry wit, but in contrast to his existential ponderings in his other creative works, The Cabin in the Woods ends on a hopeless note.
One could argue that the hopelessness isn’t literal, that the entire film exists as a thought piece on a genre, a game within a game, a comment on the persistent hopeless nature of the horror genre, a hopelessness that Whedon and Goddard take to its final conclusion by unleashing the purest judgment upon humanity: the gods themselves.
Once again, it seems dependent on how you want to approach the film. Is it just a giant meta commentary on the horror genre or does it have, moral implications that go beyond the bounds of fiction? In either case, Whedon and Goddard give the audience a lot of food for thought no matter how deep they want to trudge into The Cabin in the Woods.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing