Why We Need Stories Like ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

We don’t just love stories that scare us because they offer a thrill ride. We don’t just like narratives of the supernatural because they give us a frisson, a corkscrew tingle that runs down our spine. We don’t, despite the claims of moralists, love horror films because we are a decadent culture that finds sick pleasure in modern horror’s amalgam of violent dismemberment and gratuitous sex.

We need these stories.

The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie about horror movies. Except not really. It’s a horror movie about what horror movies do for us, about why narratives of horror mean something to us. Its not, in a basic sense, a deconstruction of the horror genre. Wes Craven already did that with New Nightmare and Scream.

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, partners in reimagining the mythic for more than a decade now, have instead offered us a deconstruction of our fascination with horror movies. The Cabin in the Woods reimagines our myths by suggesting, in Whedonesque style, a deeper myth, a more profound architecture of narrative that lies beneath.

“You think you know the story,” reads the film’s tagline. But Goddard and Whedon show us that we really, really don’t, that we have assumed that stories of murdering maniacs and isolated cabins in the woods are moral cautionary tales, adolescent initiation rituals or sick thrill rides. But we know almost from the opening shot of what looks like a secret government complex built circa 1950 that this brilliant film has someplace stranger to take us.

It’s de rigueur in reviews of films like this to promise a spoiler-free read. The truth is that The Cabin in the Woods is almost impossible to spoil. If you’ve heard that it contains a twist ending, you’ve heard wrong. There’s a secret to be told but it’s the whole experience that twists your expectations and creates a story almost shamanic in its intensity.

The Cabin in the Woods is a movie lover’s movie, but even if you have only the slightest familiarity with the horror genre, you’ll find you’re right at home in the first 15 minutes. Then, just as quickly, you’ll find yourself lost in the woods with a deeply clever screenplay classic Whedon and a brilliant cast to pull it off.

There are plenty of movies about movies but the rabbit hole takes you deeper here. Much more than yet another postmodern riff, The Cabin in the Woods offers a meditation about the work of H.P Lovecraft, about nihilism, about our need to punish the young for their youth, about the secret structures of powers that watch us and our own need to interact with the world as voyeurs and agents of control.

Academics are likely to be all over this movie, in much the same way that the rest of Whedon’s work has become “academ-candy” for scholars with a pop culture sweet tooth (full disclosure here, I’ve both blogged about the relationships between the film and Foucault and am writing about The Cabin in the Woods for a collection of scholarly essays, and of course, PopMatters and Titan Books recently published Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion). But this is a film without pretensions and that’s more in love with the horror tradition than with pretending to be an art film or even an especially important one.

Maybe this lack of pretension has something to do with how damn important the film manages to become. Its Marty, (the pothead played by Whedon alum Fran Kranz) who sets the stage by telling us about a world that’s binding us and about how the trip into the woods the kids make offers a chance to “Get off the grid…go someplace for one goddam weekend where they can’t global position my ass… society needs to crumble, we just need to let it… you’ll come to see things my way.”

We do come to see things Marty’s way, in part because of what learn from the film about the systems that supervise us, and about the place where all our monsters live. Horror has been manufactured for us, The Cabin in the Woods tells us. As Hadley, bureaucrat of a monstrous underground administrative system off-handedly notes, “we rig the game.”

And, the secret beneath the cabin is that it is all something of a scam. Marty may be really, really high, but he does “see puppeteers”, he does see that his friends are becoming “not who we really are.”

Fans of the film have been salivating over the release on DVD and Blu-ray, expecting special features that would enable them to explore the secret world beneath and behind the cabin. The Blu-ray special edition does comes packed with them, and includes a spectacular Maximum Movie Mode that provides a screen within a screen feature with extra commentary. It gives us Drew Goddard talking casting and decisions about shots. The in-screen feature also includes individual cast members talking about how they tried to shape their roles.

The in-picture commentary also gives us a lot of information about set-design, a good thing since the aesthetic of this movie deserves more attention than it has received. So, for example, we learn that the gas station of the Harbinger (the frightening, physically and/or mentally disfigured character in most horror flicks who proffers the first portent of destruction) had an odd extra feature not immediately noticeable. Underneath the cash register are rows of about forty doorknobs. Nothing essentially creepy about this except that, as a production designer Martin Whist points out, “Why would there be forty doorknobs?” These small additions to the look of the film work on a level deeper than other more prominent choices like frightening frontier canvases in the rooms of the cabin or feral looking taxidermy on the walls.

I actually can’t praise the comments of Whist enough. We learn so much, much more than we often do from similar commentary, about how the film achieved its all-embracing aesthetic of dread and weirdness The celler, for example, became a way for The Cabin in the Woods, to tell its story, and the back-story of the monsters that are coming our way, much better than lots of verbal exposition. Whist notes that Goddard’s insistence that the cellar become the dark Pandora’s box from which the narrative flows, makes it essential to the movie. As Whist points out, its also a pleasure to go back to the cellar after we’ve met the monsters and see their talismans and make an even stronger connection to their story.

Maximum Movie Mode also gives us Whedon. It’s a pleasure just to hear him talk about his work, as much fanboy as impresario and maestro. In one of his more interesting comments, he calls attention to how the lighting of the film is simply classical…the characters and scenes are eerily lit and there is no dependence on guerrilla shots, fast editing and all the tricks that most modern horror films use to make us jump. But being startled is different from being afraid. The Cabin in the Woods manages the latter, more difficult task while paying homage to its horrific forebears and making us laugh along the way.

We learn from Whedon that at least some of the culture of the underground, bureaucratic world that makes up part of the film owes something to Goddard growing up near Los Alamos. Adding to this point, Martin Whist notes that the bunker has a kind of cold war aesthetic. Its not ancient tech but it also has the look of a fallout shelter filled with levers and dials rather than touch screen controls like Apple might design.

The other special features are equally outstanding. Most of us have been daydreaming for months now about Whedon and Goddard’s audio commentary. It’s as satisfying as you’d expect and has exactly the kind of “two nerds in their parents basement talking” feel that you probably had hoped it would. Meanwhile, “We Who are Not Who We Are” is an excellently put together production and design featurette. Sometimes these can feel like extended trailers for the film you just watched but this one comes packed with details about putting together this extraordinary film on a $30 million dollar budget.

These mostly exquisite features are not perfect. I don’t think its giving away too much to note that, as everyone who has seen the film already knows, there’s a certain point when every nightmare you’ve ever had gets unleashed on the screen. Most amazingly, as we learn from the “Making of” feature, the CGI team had a limited time to put this amazing tableaux together, Unfortunately, we only get too short features on this process… really out of proportion to how important the creatures end up being to the total effect of the film.

In my favorite line from my favorite Universal horror film Bride of Frankenstein, the Mephistophelean Dr. Pretorius toasts “a new world of gods and monsters.” Those words, in so many ways a proclamation of the classic age of the monster mash, almost feel like they’ve been fully realized in Goddard and Whedon’s burlesque of the “new” post-1968 horror film. Only these two could have pulled off a slasher film that’s also about dark gods rising, a film that contains more than a little whimsy and a climax that manages to be both deeply misanthropic and a deeply sweet paen to friendship. You think you know the story… but you have to see it to believe it.

RATING 10 / 10