Good Work, Zombie Hand!
Final Girl. The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified.
—Carol J. Clover, “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”
“We chose,” says Dana (Kristen Connolly), the Final Girl in The Cabin in the Woods. As the Final Girl in a slasher film, Dana has arrived at her proper place, the place you anticipate from this movie’s start. She’s been witness to her friends’ terrible fates and is now decoder of the horrific puzzle. In this case, she means that she and her friends—who all decide to spend a night in the titular cabin and who all go in the titular woods.
In other words, Dana’s realization that she and her friends “chose” is both her fate and your payoff. In other other words, slasher aficionados know their own places, a point made extra-clear by Scream, though you surely knew it before then: watching a movie when you know the rules means you anticipate what’s going to happen, and anticipation—of the victims’ terror, their abuse, and their terrible fates—is key to your pleasure. You expect types of victims and monsters, as well as blood and screaming and diabolical violence. You expect kills.
The Cabin in the Woods delivers all this and something else too, a framing device that’s established in the very first scene, when Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) head off to work, chatting about the office pool and what they anticipate. Thus the movie, like many movies before it, incorporates a veteran audience to mirror its own veteran audience. They frame a story that is familiar by definition: Dana and her friends are packing for their trip, each arranged according to a limited range of types: Dana’s the Final Girl (so designated by her lack of a boyfriend), Jules (Anna Hutchison) is the sexy girl, affiliated with a handsome, jockish, and also book-smart boyfriend named Curt (Chris Hemsworth). He brings along a date for Dana, his new wide receiver Holden (Jesse Williams), and they bring along the requisite stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz), whose fuzzy truth-speaking will not be recognized by the others until it is Too Late.
Their adventure in the woods goes as you expect: they meet the creepy guy in overalls (Tim De Zarn), here named Mordecai and presiding over a last chance gas station, with rusting pumps and a sign that says “Closed.” He spits and squints and essentially embodies a warning to go no further, a warning the kids ignore and you appreciate for its combinatory earnestness and mordancy. The kids don’t get much that follows, which is, of course, their job. They head to the cabin (Clover’s “Terrible Place”), where they settle in for an evening of seemingly transgressive and completely predictable behavior: they smoke dope, play Truth or Dare (which leads to Sexy Girl’s display of her gumption when it comes to sex), and wander into the cellar when the door slams open on cue.
The cellar is dark but not so dark that they can’t sort through a variety of trinkets left behind by former victims and hinting at the perils to come. As the kids handle the items (diary, locket, music box, etc.), you can guess what each portends, precisely because you’ve seen the movies they have not (such ignorance, believable or not, being a prerequisite for slasher victims), and so you begin imagining an array of potential grisly consequences.
Here and again, The Cabin in the Woods revisits the formula that lets viewers feel superior (in terms of knowledge) and also anxious (because of that apparent knowledge). Your expertise means you know that going out into the woods to have sex in the moonlight or smoking lots of pot is a bad idea, but also that staying sober and inside the cabin won’t be so advantageous either. In either case, you want the kid(s) to survive but also you don’t, because the pleasure to be derived from this exercise is both voyeuristic and visceral: you’re in place to jump at startling-yet-unsurprising noises and faux scares and feel repulsed/titillated by bloody squishy effects, to worry at the point-of-view frame observing the girl undress and watch the victim scream and blubber as he or she is dragged away from the camera.
As all such events and cinematography are foreseeable, the kick is in the foreseeing. In part, this is a function of the choice you make, in buying the formula (literally and/or metaphorically). The Cabin in the Woods is hardly the first movie to draw attention to your choices (this mechanism is more or less built into the formula), but it does do so obviously. It also does what all other slasher films do, which is to provide extra layers of kick, rewarding you not only for taking pleasure in the gore but also for taking pleasure in your own smartness in taking that pleasure. The gore and the monsters who bring it are more or less incidental, as this movie underscores by delivering cheesy effects (and in this, the film recalls or maybe pays homage to its estimable low-budget precursors, from Last House on the Left to Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Halloween).
And here again, the film makes a point that’s not new, but pleasurable. The kids “choose” their fate, but they don’t. The options are too limited and the outcomes too foregone. And that’s what you pay for. You don’t pay to pay in any broader sense, that is, you don’t feel remorse or consternation after watching The Cabin in the Woods. It doesn’t make you rethink your assumptions or ponder how you take pleasure. It lets you feel smart. Again.