If you've been following this blog for any amount of time you've probably noticed that I don't have much use for spoiler warnings, or for the primacy that spoilers have gained in the discourse about popular culture. The conversations I want to have, the ones that seem interesting and worth having, are precisely the ones that don't allow for the self-censorship of spoiler mania, and the truth is that I don't believe that a truly worthwhile work is one that can be "spoiled" simply by knowing what happens next. So when I say that Drew Goddard's horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods (written by Goddard and Joss Whedon), is the sort of film that rewards unspoiled viewing, that probably seems entirely different to viewers who know its secrets, and that may, in fact, only be worth watching if you're ignorant of its central twist, I'm not being entirely complimentary. Cabin is a funny, clever, well-made film, extremely effective in its scary scenes and an enjoyable viewing experience all around, but it is also rather hollow. That's a direct result of binding the film's affect so inextricably with its central twist--a choice that is disappointing not only because of what it makes of the film, but because it leaves unexplored all of that twist's more intriguing implications.
Before I get any further I should probably acknowledge that my use of the word "twist" here is somewhat questionable. Inasmuch as The Cabin in the Woods has a twist, it is not only announced in the film's trailers, but in its opening minutes. Before we're even introduced to our cabal of doomed young people as they blithely prepare for their fateful trip to the titular cabin--bubbly pre-med student Jules (Anna Hutchinson), her earnest boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), her best friend Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt's friend Holden (Jesse Williams), who has been invited as a fix-up for Dana, and pothead clown Marty (Fran Kranz)--we meet the people who are planning their cliché-ridden doom, Hadley (Bradley Whitford), Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), and Lin (Amy Acker), who from a hi-tech underground facility are monitoring every centimeter of the cabin and its grounds, the better to usher the campers to their deaths. Even the purpose of that carefully orchestrated massacre has already been made clear in the film's opening credits, which depict scenes of human sacrifice. Ten minutes into the film's run, then, the only question that remains--the one whose answer I am calling the film's twist--is really more of a missing puzzle piece: who are these kids being sacrificed to, and why? Nevertheless, once you know the answer to that question, The Cabin in the Woods becomes a completely different story, and to watch the film knowing that it is that story would, I think, be a supremely unsatisfying experience, because just where you'd expect that story to start is where The Cabin in the Woods chooses to stop.
The film instead puts its eggs in the metafiction basket, revealing that the tropes of American horror films (and of those from other countries, as sites in places like Sweden, Japan, or Spain, where other scenarios are being run, are mentioned) are integral components of the sacrifice ritual. These tropes are painstakingly recreated by the behind the scenes crew, who tamper not only with the campers' circumstances but with their body chemistry. Jules has been designated the scenario's bimbo, so Lin has introduced a substance that impairs cognitive function into the dye with which she's recently colored her hair blonde. Like most of Cabin in the Wood's jokes, however, the film hammers this one in--"dumb blonde, huh?" Hadley says admiringly. Other jokes, such as Marty's genre-savviness and the frustrations it causes Hadley and Sitterson, or a scene in which Mordecai, the creepy hillbilly who menaces the campers on their way to the cabin, calls the control room to deliver overheated, foreboding oratory only to complain because he's been placed on speakerphone, are initially quite funny but go on for too long, while others take forever to build up--throughout the film the bunker crew refer to Dana as The Virgin even though we know she's had an affair with one of her professors--only to deliver a faint payoff--"We work with what we're given" is Sigourney Weaver's senior director's response to Dana's wordless query at her designation. In the aggregate, The Cabin in the Woods is a funny film, but its individual jokes are strained, trying too hard to make up for the absence of truly excellent wit. Though a few come close (the speakerphone scene is my favorite) there isn't a single gag that truly lingers and elicits laughter on the way out of the movie theater.
Even more frustrating is the way the film points out the shallowness of horror tropes, but refuses to replace them with anything deeper. The five campers have been designated with roles that both correspond to character types found in horror films and are, in the film's universe, components of the ritual. The more we see of the kids, however, the less those roles seem to suit them. Dana and Jules have been dubbed, respectively, the Virgin and the Whore, but so far as we can tell both girls are sexually active and neither is very promiscuous--they could just as easily have been given each other's parts. By the same token, Curt is the Athlete and Holden is the Scholar, even though Curt, as well as being an athelete, is a sociology major on a full academic scholarship, and Holden, as well as being a scholar, is the new star of the football team. This, however, is as far as the film's characterization goes--it establishes that its characters are not the reductive stereotypes to which they've been assigned, but it tells us nothing about who they are, and doesn't even attempt to make actual people out of them. It even seems pleased to make use of those stereotypes when they suit its purposes--Marty fits his role, the Fool, to a T, both in the sense that he is a buffoon and in the sense that he sees more than the others, noticing the joints and seams in the scenario and finding his way backstage.
"She's got so much heart," Hadley says of Dana as he watches her struggle for her life against the monsters he's unleashed on her, explaining why, despite the jaded cynicism he's evinced towards his awful job since the beginning of the film, he finds himself rooting for her. This, however, feels like the film telling us how we should feel rather than an accurate description of Dana, who though suitably appealing does little to set herself apart from the million Final Girls who have come before her. Inasmuch as she has heart, it's because her role--her role in The Cabin in the Woods, that is, not the scenario-within-the-film--requires her to. The film may very well be commenting on this fact--Hadley's moment of sentiment is interrupted and replaced by his typical cynicism when his colleagues arrive with alcohol to celebrate the sacrifice's success--but that still leaves us with a protagonist who can't manage to escape or transcend her type despite being in a story that is all about pointing out that that type exists.
The problem, I think, is that Dana shouldn't be the protagonist, and The Cabin in the Woods comes close to reaching this conclusion itself before shaking it off and settling into a story that, for all its quirks, runs along very familiar grooves. In the first half of the film, we can't help but root for the campers and feel anger towards the bunker crew. Knowing that someone within the story--someone not monstrous but ordinary and familiar--is orchestrating the kids' gruesome deaths gives those deaths an extra, fresh layer of horror that cuts through the hoariness of the story, and makes the backstage characters' jadedness, and even glee, at their actions seem terribly cruel. Around the time that Dana and Marty find their way into the bunker, however, we get our missing puzzle piece and learn the reason that they and their friends are being sacrificed. Which turns out to be the reason for every human sacrifice--to appease the gods and prevent the end of the world. All over the world facilities like the one we've been watching have been reenacting rituals from their cultures, trying to stave off the Old Ones' awakening, but this year all but the American scenario have failed--the fate of the world depends on Marty and Dana dying (actually just Marty, since as the Virgin Dana may survive so long as she suffers).
Since we're constantly ahead of the campers in our understanding of their story--first knowing that they are in a horror story scenario, then realizing the reason for that scenario before they do--it's hard not to feel unreasonably angry at Marty and Dana's determination to survive, and at the things they do to achieve that end. When Dana releases all of the nightmare creatures stored in the bunker (a component of the ritual is that each group of campers chooses, through its actions, which monster will hunt them, and there is a wide selection to choose from) and sics them on the staff, the result is one of the film's most bloody, and weirdly exhilarating, sequences, as wave after wave of increasingly bizarre monsters are unleashed to deal imaginative deaths to office workers, maintenance personnel, and HR bigwigs. But knowing what we do, it's also an almost villainous act--Dana's actions not only lead to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unnecessary deaths, they also hasten the end of the world.
There is, yet again, a sense that The Cabin in the Woods is aware of this, and that if only the film had leaned a little bit further into this reading the result might have a much more interesting story. After all, it's almost possible to read the film as Hadley, Sitterson, and Lin's story, a horror narrative of a different but no less compelling type. The speakerphone scene is played for laughs, but Mordecai's dire warnings of looming disaster are aimed as much at his colleagues as they are at the campers, and they go unheeded. The backstage plot could have been a horror story about hubris, about the arrogance of people whose power over the circumstances of other people's lives has blinded them to their own vulnerability and lack of control. In broad strokes, this is what happens, but the final act of the film is too brisk, too preoccupied with inventive slaughter, and still too invested in Dana and Marty as protagonists while relegating Hadley, Sitterson, and Lin to comic relief (and then canon fodder) to work as their story. Though interesting hints are raised that something more is going on behind the scenes--several near-misses before the true disaster are blamed on orders from upstairs, and someone appears to be sabotaging at least the American scenario and possibly the others as well--and though a few lines towards the end of the film, and Marty and Dana's uncaring nihilism when the purpose of the sacrifice required of them finally sinks in, suggest a theme of inter-generational strife, neither of these ideas are developed. If The Cabin in the Woods is intended as a story in which the scenario operators are the protagonists and Marty and Dana are the villains, it is a rather shapeless one. And more's the pity, as far as I'm concerned.
There is, quite obviously, a very large component here of blaming The Cabin in the Woods for not being the film I wanted it to be. Goddard and Whedon set out to make a metafictional horror comedy that comments on the genre's tropes by employing them, and in this they succeeded. (It should also be said that I might have been more appreciative of this success as its own accomplishment if I were a bigger fan of horror films.) Much as I try to stop myself from chiding them for being short on ambition, though, I can't help but dwell on how much potential lay in their premise--a secret organization dedicated to defending the earth from ancient, evil gods with a menagerie of magical nightmare creatures at their disposal, who lure a bunch of kids to a secluded location to become part of their sacrifice ritual only for the kids to turn the tables, and the aforementioned menagerie of monsters, on them. Once you know The Cabin in the Woods's twist it's impossible not to think of the film like this, and to have used this rich vein of story for little more than a metafictional gag seems like a criminal waste. I wanted more time in the facility, more interactions between the campers and the bunker crew, more information about the organization running this show, more questioning of Marty and Dana's choices. (Of course, maybe I'm only saying this because "underground facility that is also a wacky, surreal workplace and has become overrun by horrors while a menacing female voice booms on the PA" puts me in mind of Portal, which does a better job of blending humor and menace than The Cabin in the Woods and even feels like a more compelling story.) The Cabin in the Woods is a funny, clever film, but it isn't nearly funny enough, or nearly clever enough, to make up for the loss of that story.