In honor of Halloween, I decided to dig up an old essay I wrote on the movie Cabin in the woods. Enjoy.
From the early days of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff to the “torture porn” craze in more recent years (The Saw and Hostel Franchises) the horror film has undergone nearly a century’s worth of evolution as a prominent genre of cinema. Throughout these several decades of development the “scary movie” has established a number of narrative formulas and motifs that have become the “cliches” of the genre. In 2012 Writer/ director Joss Whedon collaborated with television writer Drew Goddard to produce a satirical horror-comedy. With The film, entitled simply The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon and Goddard sought to not only mockingly subvert the cliches of horror films and their varying sub-genres, but also sought to deconstruct and analyze the nature of the audiences who watch these movies as well as the industry that makes them.
The 2012 film was co-written by Joss Whedon (most famous for creating the cult television series’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s spin-off Angel, Firefly and Doll House as well as writing and directing the hit blockbuster The Avengers) and Drew Goddard (who had worked with Whedon on the show Angel and also wrote the film Cloverfield) who also directed the picture. On the narrative foreground The Cabin in the Woods follows five college students (Dana, Marty, Jules, Kurt and Holden) as they embark in an RV on a weekend roadtrip to the titular cabin in the woods. However their innocent vacation is being orchestrated by what appears to be a corporate level cult represented to the audience by the character Hadley and Sitterson, who are following every move the kids make with thousands of hidden camera and even manipulating their environment through a 1960’s style NASA control room deep below the cabin. As the film progresses it it revealed that what is to occur that night (the grizzly murder of these people) is an elaborate ritual in which this cult must sacrifice five people to prolong the slumber of a race of ancient, Lovecraftian gods who, if awoken, would bring about the end of humanity. So beneath the cabin is an underground facility housing an “army of nightmares,” a collection of horrible monsters ranging from zombies to werewolves to giant cobras, each monster correlating to an item in the basement of the cabin to be unknowingly chosen and summoned by one of the sacrifices. In the film Dana reads a Latin text from the diary of Patience Buchner (the cabin is referred to as the “old Buchner place”) and summons the Buchners, a family of Pain worshiping zombies each equipped with an instrument of torture like a bear-trap or a giant tree-cutting saw.
It’s important to have at least a vague idea of what the film is about because there is rarely a superfluous moment in this film, almost everything is done or said with the very specific purpose illustrating the film makers satirical vision. Even the arrangement of the opening credits in juxtaposition with the opening scene of the film act as a subversion of horror film “norms.” The opening credits consist of standard horror film fare. Illustrations of historical examples of ritual sacrifice and various occult imagery appear in pools of blood spreading over a pitch-black background, a foreboding score in the background. This is evocative of other classic horror credit sequences. The Jack ‘O’ Lantern illuminating the credits at the beginning of Halloween to John Carpenters now famous Halloween theme; the Christopher Young composed Gypsy-inspired string section screeching with the turning of the pages of a cursed Grimoire fortelling the curse of the Lamia in Drag Me to Hell. More famous is Saul Bass’ credit sequence for the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, featuring a dizzying display of sliding lines and shapes forming the names of the cast and crew over the frantic string section composed by Bernard Hermmann. However it is not the initial presentation of the credits that establishes the relationship between Cabin in the Woods and the films mentioned, rather it is the scene’s juxtaposition with the scene that follows that establishes the prominent satirical nature of the film as a whole. Rather than immediately introducing the main protagonists, presenting the pigs for slaughter so to speak, or even opening with a murder like the first shark attack in Jaws or Freddy Versus Jason, the film opens with a casual conversation between two middle-aged guys in white button up shirts and straight black ties talking about the one’s wife’s recent fertility test and how annoying all of the baby-proofed cabinets are to get into. The two men are Hadley and Sitterson, the men working the control panel that will facilitate the deaths of the five protagonists (who have yet to be introduced). The scene continues to follow them as they casually discuss their personal lives, the upcoming day of work, bicker with another worker from the Chem department about a hitch in last years ritual, and even allude to a playful rivalry with the Japanese branch. The scene is inherently funny, (the comedic value mainly being derived from the sharp dialogue and the delivery by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as Hadley and Sitterson, respectively) yet it is preceded by a montage of Hellish images of ritualistic mutilation. The scene is capped off with Hadley mentioning getting drunk after work and liberating his cabinets with power tools before the scene cuts abruptly the title in big bloody letters with a shrieking sound effect, bringing the juxtaposition back full circle. Within the first five minutes the narrative formula of horror films is subverted by using montage to juxtapose the standard horror opening with a comedic casual conversation among co-workers whose job, as it will revealed, just so happens to be orchestrating the ritualistic murder of five unsuspecting youths.
The five youths in question, as mentioned earlier, are Dana (Kristen Connolly), Marty (Francis Kranz), Jules (Anna Hutchinson), Kurt (Chris Hemsworth) and Holden (Jesse Williams). These five characters serve the purpose of filling not only the roles established by the ritual within the film, but a ritual within the viewing of the film as well. It is established early on in the film that they are all intelligent college Students. Kurt, while being built like a linebacker, is said to be a Sociology Major on full academic scholarship, while his girlfriend Jules is established as being pre-med. Dana is caught packing textbooks to read on the trip “in case she gets bored”. Holden, who is first seen tossing a football around with Kurt, is revealed to know Latin. Even Marty, the token stoner of the group, shows a propensity for waxing philosophical with diatribes about how society is “binding” with “everything being recorded filed, blogged” and that society very desperately “needs to crumble”. This is a stark difference from the protagonists of films like Cabin Fever, Jeepers Creepers 2, or the Friday the Thirteenth Franchise where the protagonists are generally a group of horny teenagers each occupying some high school level stereotype like jock, slut, prude, stoner or nerd, with the depth of the characterization ending there. While there are inklings of these stereotypes in the characters in Cabin in the Woods, it is carefully established that each character is intelligent and has a distinctive personality independent of whatever stereotype that might be applied to them. While Kurt and Holden are first seen tossing a football around with athletic prowess they are both shown to be very well educated, as well as Jules who is at first viewed as the “perky Blond” type (having just dyed hair blond before trip). Dana, despite coming as shy and bookish, is revealed within minutes of her introduction to have recently gotten out of an affair with one of her professors. Yet as the film goes on the “puppeteers” (as Marty comes to call them) manipulate the situation so as to force each one of the characters into some archetypical role within their sacrificial ritual. In the underground facility it’s said by Lin (the Chem Department worker seen earlier interacting with Hadley and Sitterson) that they treated Jules’ hair-dye with chemicals that will reach her bloodstream through the scalp and increase her hormone and endorphin levels making her more bubbly and prone towards sexual activity, while chemicals in the beer influence Kurt to act more carnal and “jock-ish.” It’s eventually revealed that for the ritual to be performed correctly (and thus prolong the slumber of the ancient, evil gods) the cult must offer the sacrifice of the five archetypes: the whore (Jules), the athlete (Kurt), the scholar (Holden), the fool (Marty), and the virgin (Dana).
These five archetypes, as mentioned earlier, allude to recurring stock characters of horror movies of the past. The whore is said to be the first to die, often during the act of sex. Tina Gray (Manda Wyss) and Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) fill these roles in the films A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, respectively. Tina Gray is first to be haunted in her dreams by the films antagonist Freddy Kreuger and is killed in her sleep immediately after having sex with her boyfriend. Tatum Riley, despite not being the first die and being a brunette, fills the role by mistaking the killer known as “Ghost face” as her boyfriend wearing a costume for a sex game, leading to her murder. One of the earliest examples of this trope would be In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the form of the film’s initial protagonist Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh). The crux of her character is built around her sexuality (being first introduced after having sex with her boyfriend, being watched as she undresses by Norman bates and then being killed while she’s naked in the shower) as well as being the first to die in the film (originally seen as the protagonist of the film before being unexpectedly murdered thirty minutes in). In Cabin in the Woods, Jules begins to show these overtly sexual traits when she takes a dare to make out with a stuffed wolf head in the cabin (which she does with a surprisingly amount of passion and vigor) and later is the first to be killed by the Buchners (they saw her head off) while having sex with her boyfriend Kurt out in the woods. The athlete refers to the “jock,” (for example: High school football star Barry Cox, Ryan Philippe’s character in I Know What You Did Last Summer), often portrayed as brutish and driven by carnal desires and prone to aggression towards “weaker” men (an example of this would be Ron Grady’s initial antagonism towards Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm street 2:Freddy’s Revenge). Kurt begins to show these traits after drinking the chemically treated beer he brought to the cabin. The effects begin to manifest with casual asides like referring to Holden as “egghead” for looking through Patience Buchner’s diary and berating Marty to “stop being such a baby” for being frightened of the content of the cellar. Kurt’s role as the athlete even informs the way in which he dies, attempting to jump the chasm on his dirt bike to escape and get help only to ride head first into the invisible barrier surrounding the forest and plummeting into the darkness. The scholar refers to the “nerd” of the film, often portrayed as knowledgeable but awkward and is often undermined by the athlete ( or any alpha-male character) in some way (Holden being called an ‘egghead” by Kurt). An exaggerated example is Rick Moranis as Seymore Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors who’s constantly overshadowed by the motorcycle driving Sadist/ dentist Orin Scrivello (played by Steve Martin). Marty is meant to represent the fool of the group like Jamie kennedy’s Randy Meeks In Scream or Evil Ed (played by Stephen Geoffreys) in Fright Night. These characters are often used for comic relief and display a certain degree of self-awareness about what’s going on due to pop-cultural knowledge, Marty serves the role in film without the manipulation of the cult, however, due to his “secret secret stash” of marijuana that went unaltered by the Chem department, which allows him to transcend this stereotype by catching on to the ritual and hot-wiring the elevator that delivered the Buchner’s (allowing him to enter the underground facility) and live to the end of the film alongside Dana. Dana is meant to serve as the default virgin/ final girl (I say default because she’s not a virgin, having had an affair with a professor at her college before the events of the film, only received the role because all of the others were occupied). The concept of the final girl refers, obviously, to the final survivor of whatever massacre takes place in a horror film. She is generally portrayed as pure and virginal (a prime example would be Laurie Strode played Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween). Within the context of the ritual she must be last left standing, to live or die “as fate would decide,” thus making her death optional, so long as it’s last. If she dies before any of the others the ritual has failed and the gods will rise. Even outside the context of the ritual there are archetypes from other films being represented. Before reaching the cabin the gang stops at a run-down gas station where meet “the harbinger.” He’s a cantankerous old man with blood shot eyes and a constant wad of tobacco in his mouth who serves the purpose of warning the kids away with tales of how anybody who’s ever owned the old Buchner cabin has never kept it. He then proceeds to call Jules a whore to her face. It’s discovered a few scene’s afterward that his name is Mordecai and that he is associated with the cult, playing the role referred to as “the Harbinger.” It’s his job to warn the sacrifices, thus giving them a choice to leave or continue on. This harkens back to characters like Old man Ralph in Friday the Thirteenth, warning Annie away from Camp Crystal Lake, after which she continues to hitchhike there, and is promptly murdered. The entire ritual within the film acts a satire of the derivative formula employed throughout numerous horror films as displayed by the 5 archetypes, almost as if the repetitive narratives of these films are part of some rigidly structured ritual that the writers must adhere to and not deviate from.
Another target of satire in the film is a specific sub-genre of horror cinema: the Zombie movie. It is no accident that zombies of all monsters were chosen out an entire “army of nightmares” including a Hellraiser homage in the form of Fornicus, a giant cobra, a carnivorous merman and a slew of other hellish creatures (the cabin cellar containing hundreds of items, each one correlating to one of the monsters that will unleashed should the item be disturbed). It would appear that the film maker’s decision to use zombies as the instruments of murder could have been a means of reflecting the resurgence of zombies in film and television of the past decade. Various examples in the recent year include films like 28 Days later, its sequel 28 Weeks later, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead Remake, the hit television series The Walking Dead as well as the “Zom-Com’s” (zombie-comedies) Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Zombie Strippers and the upcoming Warm Bodies. A target of satire could also be the notion of varying “zombie sub-cultures” in these films with differing depictions of Zombies in films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the more recent 28 Days Later from Danny Boyle. In Night of the Living Dead zombies are slow moving and decaying whereas in 28 Days Later the zombies are not actually undead but infected with a brain altering virus (the Rage Virus) and still capable of running after their victims at great speeds. This prompts an “walkers versus runners” argument among fans of the sub-genre. Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead also features runners, while Shaun of the Dead and the TV show The Walking Dead feature walkers (the zombies are even called Walkers instead of Zombies by characters in the show). In Cabin in the Woods this is illustrated in a scene after the Zombified Buchner’s are chosen in the Cellar and unleashed upon the cabin. The staff of the underground facility had held a betting pool to see which monster would be chosen, each monsters name written in boxes on a white board with different departments written next to varying monsters (signifying who had placed a bet on what). A woman who lost complains to Sitterson (who was running the pool) saying the she put her money on Zombies, yet the maintenance department (and an intern who bet on the same monster and had to split the winnings) won. Sitterson says that the reason she still lost is that she did in fact place a bet on zombies and shows that there are two separate boxes: one for zombies and one for zombie redneck torture family, explaining that there is a huge difference and equating it to the difference between “an elephant and an elephant seal.” This establishes a comedic notion of different zombie sub-cultures within the film which could be a wink and nod to the arguments held by fans Zombie cinephiles.
This awareness of the horror film fans manifests in other forms throughout the film. While Cabin in the Woods initially appears to be a satire of horror films, as the story unfolds the film develops into an analysis of the nature of the audiences who watch horror movies as well as the the industry that produces them. The production aspect of horror films is initially referenced by Hadley when mentions an implied rivalry between the American branch and the Japanese branch. This alludes to a rivalry between American horror films and Japanese horror film. Hadley states that “Japan has a perfect record” and that “We’re [the U.S] number two but we try harder.” This refers to fact that a number American Horror movies are actually remakes of Japanese Horror Movies like Ringu (The Ring), Ju-On (The Grudge), One Missed Call and Dark Waters to name a few. This string of American Remakes of Japanese films denotes sort of race to catch up in regards to Japanese Film Makers. The differences between the 2 different cultural approaches is also shown. In general Japanese Horror films generally revolve around ghosts and are more psychological in nature as opposed to the gorier, more visually bombastic horror films of the U.S (Connolly, 2011). Throughout Cabin in the Woods the ritual is seen being performed in Japan through Monitors in the Control Room. The Japanese Ritual, in contrast with the Zombie Slash-fest in America, features a ghost terrorizing a room of Japanese schoolgirls. The ghost evokes the common appearance of the ghosts in Ringu and the Grudge with her matted black hair hanging over her face, pale skin, sunken black eye with a soaking wet white gown as she levitates over around the classroom.
Further reflections of the viewing audience (as well as the people who produce horror films) are later presented in comedic fashions. For example, during the sex scene between Jules and Kurt. While the two make out in the woods, the scene cuts back to the control room, now full of male workers with huge grins on their faces and wonder in their eyes as they watch the monitors with anticipation of what is to come. Hadley and Sitterson further manipulate the scene to ensure that two do in fact have sex by pumping pheromone mist through the mossy ground, raising the temperature when Jules complains about being chilly and even adjusting the amount of moonlight breaking through the trees to create a romantic atmosphere (this is all possible because Jules and Kurt aren’t actually seeing the night sky, just a simulation of it, the whole forest being in some kind of huge, high tech terrarium). One of the guards, who seems awkward about watching two people have sex, asks “Do we really need to see this?” To which Hadley responds “We’re not the only ones watching,” (referring to the gods being placated by the ritual) with Sitterson adding that “we have to keep the customer satisfied.” This represents the voices of the men who wrote the film, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. Hadley and Sitterson are the writers. They are literally setting the scene (as they have been throughout the entire film) that plays out for both the audience outside the film as well as an audience within the film (the gods for whom this ritual is being played out). Hadley and Sitterson must create a sex scene to placate the viewer, just how screenwriters and directors are expected to add a sex scene to a horror film to entertain the hormone addled whimsies of teenaged to twenty-something males who are thought to occupy the bulk of the targeted demographic (this being shown by the room full men ogling the scene playing out in front of them) (Crowther, 2006). This parallel also manifests during the scene in which the workers of the underground facility hold a celebration when it appears that “the virgin” Dana is the last person standing thus completing the ritual (unaware that Marty is still alive rendering it incomplete). The celebration seems reminiscent of a “wrap-party,” a celebration held after a film has finished shooting and even includes workers from other departments telling Hadley and Sitterson what their “favorite parts” were. (the RV crashing into the lake, for example) like they were fans of a movie praising the directors/writers. Even in the end, as Marty and Dana wait for the world to end as the ancients rise, the two characters reflect the sentiments of the audience when Dana says “I wish I could have seen them” ( referring to the giant evil gods) and Marty responds “I know, now that would’ve been a fun weekend.” This recognizes the fact that the presence of these giant lovecraftian gods has been build up throughout the entire movie yet they are never seen, save for a giant demonic looking hand shooting up out of the ground and slamming down on the camera right before the credits roll. Also addressed is the possibly sadistic nature of the audiences who watch these movies. Dana brings this up in the film when Marty says “A ritual sacrifice? Great! You tie someone to a stone, get a fancy dagger and a bunch of robes…it’s not that complicated!” To which Dana responds: “No, it’s simple. They don’t want to see us killed. They want to see us punished.” This calls attention to the gratuitously violent nature of the ritual in the film as well as horror movies (on a sub-textual level), thus implying a certain level of sadism in the fact that there is a demographic for films about people getting butchered (especially in the past decade with “torture porn” films like Saw, Hostel, their sequels, The Collector ect.).
In summation, through the narrative of Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard were able to make a number of statements regarding horror films and their varying sub-genres. These statements ranged from the derivative “ritual” film makers seem to be performing over and over again, to the recurring trend of zombie films and American made remakes of Japanese films, the production process performed by the industry that produces horror films and recognitions of the targeted demographics therein, and even the philosophical implications of audiences paying to see these movies.
Works cited:-The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard, Joss Whedon, 2012, Lions Gate-R.J Crowther Jr. Horror Demograhpic 101: Meat, Metal & Mayhen. 2006. http://rjcrowtherjr.livejournal.com/3270.htmlhttp://rjcrowtherjr.livejournal.com/3270.html-Japanese Horror Movies Versus American Horror Movies, 2011, Whsfreepress. http://freepress.weymouthschools.org/?p=1434http://freepress.weymouthschools.org/?p=1434Films Used For reference: Halloween (1978), Drag Me to Hell (2009), Psycho (1960), Jaws (1975), Cabin Fever (2002), Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Fright Night (1985), 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Walking Dead (2010-present) Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), Zombie Strippers (2008), Warm Bodies (2013), Ringu/ The Ring (1998/ 2002), One Misses Call (2004/2008), Dark Water (2002/2005), Ju-On/ The Grudge (2002/2004). 2012-12-03T21:07:48.182012-12-06T16:34:46.31P2DT16H54M11S10OpenOffice.org/3.4.1$Win32 OpenOffice.org_project/341m1$Build-9593