If you haven’t seen The Cabin in the Woods, the recent meta-horror movie written and directed by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, you may have heard that it’s crucial to avoid all spoilers, but that you should see it because it is good. Both of these things are true; the experience will be somewhat ruined for you – more than usual – if you learn too much about the film beforehand. This is because, though it begins like every other horror film you’ve seen – five college students go on a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods – nothing is as it seems. The official movie poster shows a rotating house, and says, “You think you know the story” – but you don’t.
So if you haven’t seen the film, I’m going to advise that you not read the rest of this post, because the rest of it will contain spoilers from the film. I think there is a shortage of analysis of the film in favor of vague, positive platitudes. There’s a lot to say about the film, but not if you refuse to spoil anything.
It turns out that there’s a corporation which is manufacturing this stereotypical horror movie plot for a mysterious client, which seems to demand this kind of thing. This is the driving interest in the plot for much of the film – on the one hand it is a horror which succeeds in being genuinely suspenseful despite its embrace of horror movie tropes (precisely because it is so self-conscious about them) – and on the other, it is a truly funny movie, also because of its hyper awareness. This produces an interesting effect on the audience. I often bounced between laughing hysterically and gripping my seat in suspense. Often times both horror and amusement came simultaneously. I don’t know how many films have done that, but I would call The Cabin in the Woods a success.
And the “client” this corporation works for is slowly revealed to be the “Old Ones”: ancient, evil gods who demand ritual sacrifice to continue to sleep. Without a successful one they will rise and kill every human on the planet. This ritual demands the horror movie tropes the film has followed so far. Most importantly, the five friends must die in a specific order. First, the “Whore” (Jules); then the Athlete (Curt), the Scholar (Holden) and the Fool (Marty); and finally the Virgin (Dana), though her death is optional as long as it comes last. And the corporation has a script to follow: when it’s time for the monsters to attack (in this case a “Zombie Redneck Torture Family”), they manipulate Jules and Curt into the woods. Jules is attacked and killed just before they have sex. Curt and Holden die later, but Marty and Dana manage to survive long enough to confront the people manipulating them and wreak their own havoc.
The interesting thing here is that none of the main characters really fit into the molds the ritual demands for them. Jules is not a “whore” in any sense of the word – she’s in a committed, monogamous relationship; Curt and Holden are both shown to be equally athletic and scholarly; Marty, who quickly catches on to the fact that they are being manipulated into acting out of character, is the least foolish of the bunch; and Dana, though a virgin, shows many aspects of her character which are far more interesting or relevant than whether or not she’s had sex before.
Once you finally understand everything going on in The Cabin in the Woods, it becomes clear that it’s a commentary on the genre – which is why I called it meta-horror earlier. The corporation manufacturing the ritual scenario represents the filmmakers and the “Old Ones” represent the audience, who demand a certain pattern. The film wants to reassert the humanity of the characters in its genre. It refuses to treat them as anything less than people, as horror often does and as it implies audiences sometimes demand. Instead it pokes fun at these demands, though the film clearly remains a horror film. And it’s precisely because of its treatment of its characters as human beings with inner lives that makes it so horrifying when the monsters are unleashed on them.