The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard, 2011)

SPOILER ALERT The writers and director of this film have been asking journalists and reviewers not to give away any details of the film. Thing is, this blog is for semi-academic musings, and those aren't really doable without talking about the film (besides, I'm not a critic who went to a preview but a paying customer, and the film's been out a couple of weeks!)

Certainly, the best way to see The Cabin in the Woods is to know nothing about it, so if you haven't seen it yet, go away and don't come back until you have. All I'll tell you for the moment is that 1) it's a proper horror movie - expect gore, albeit in relatively small amounts (I'm not sure how much, I had my eyes covered) and 2) it's absolutely hilarious.

Of course, if you want to know what on earth the fuss is about but don't like horror movies, read on!

Actually, I have to confess, I wasn't massively surprised by any of the twists and turns in The Cabin in the Woods. Partly, this is because the writers very sensibly put our two office boys, clues to what's actually going on, right in the first scene, so you have some idea where it's going. But more importantly, one thing I did know about this film before I went in was that it was co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (a writer who worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel before writing Cloverfield). And boy, does it show, in various ways. The leads are a group of likeable teenagers. The dialogue is snappy (the presence of Bradley Whitford reminds us that Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon are the joint kings of snappy dialogue), and as I mentioned above, it's absolutely hilarious. The pseudo-military installation the last act of the movie takes place in is the Initiative from Buffy season 4, right down to the small cubic cells with big transparent windows. And the bad guys are a bunch of ancient demon-gods who've been around since who knows when, to whom a succession of teenagers must be sacrificed. All the revelations about what's really going on were very, very reminiscent of Buffy and Angel, especially the later seasons - the ones Goddard worked on.

Brother and I were both expecting something slightly more at the end. (Brother asked if there was a sequel and we agreed that, based especially on the final shot, Wrath of the Titans would actually make quite a good sequel, though it's a vastly inferior movie). We both thought that the brief reference to interference from 'upstairs' implied that in addition to the obviously unpleasant ancient gods 'downstairs' (demons? the Devil?) there was some kind of good force, a god or gods that were rather more benign, 'upstairs'. We assumed that the 'upstairs' gods were trying to end the ritual sacrifices to appease the 'downstairs' gods in favour of a more permanent solution (locking them up in Tartarus, perhaps? Killing them? Ignoring them until they go away? We don't know). In the end, the movie seemed to imply that this wasn't the case, and that the world was indeed doomed, but we like to think there was a Perseus or a Buffy just round the corner, ready to save the day.

The movie makes vague references to the ritual sacrifice of the young in many cultures, across the whole of history. In the Classical world, this only happened in myth (if there was any human sacrifice in the Classical world, it was of, e.g., defeated Gauls, criminals etc). In these myths, often, the young person or persons would have to be sacrificed because of a mistake the parents had made, and often they were sacrificed to a standard god who would be nice again once this particular offence had been sorted out. These myths, several scholars have argued, are explanatory myths that come from initiation rituals, where a young person goes through a symbolic death of childhood before marrying (girls) or becoming an adult male (boys, obviously). The classic example is Iphigenia: her father Agamemnon angers Artemis, so she must be sacrificed at a fake wedding ceremony, becoming a focal mythic figure for young girls on the point of marriage.

The best known group sacrifice from Classical mythology would probably be that of the children sent to be eaten (were they eaten? killed, anyway) by the Minotaur on Crete. The Minotaur exists because of the lust of the queen Pasiphae, and the children/youths/virgins must be sacrificed to keep him content. This would be the closest to the ritual portrayed here, and may have been part of the inspiration for it, but there's still that central difference that the Minotaur existed because of human wrongdoing (and was perfectly killable), whereas here. the implication is that the ancient gods exist independently of humans and may even pre-date them.

Of course, you could argue that any execution or fight to the death in the arena in Rome was a ritual sacrifice, which brings me to another point. This film was made a couple of years ago but there were financial and distribution problems, so it's ended up coming out just a month after The Hunger Games, with which it shares some themes. The constant references to voyeurism throughout the film and the importance of creating a good show (it's unclear who the show is for - either the gods or Sigourney Weaver) and the rather twisted method of having the kids choose how they die is all very reminiscent of throwing a bunch of teenagers in an arena and watching them fight it out (and by the way I still haven't seen Battle Royale, but I'm sure Whedon and Goddard have). The weird area the kids are trapped in is definitely reminiscent of a Hunger Games arena, and this film asks similar questions about how healthy or right it is to enjoy watching people struggle, making bets on how someone will die (it makes a direct reference to reality TV, and later Brother pointed out that all reality TV shows in which a group of people get whittled down to one winner are, essentially, somewhat gladiatorial).

The difference here though is that, while The Hunger Games refers directly to the idea that we are one step away from watching people die for our entertainment, as the Romans did, The Cabin in the Woods is much more about our habit of enjoying watching people pretend to die in horror movies - which clearly isn't quite as dire, though perhaps it's still worth wondering every now and again exactly what we're enjoying (I wonder how Goddard and Whedon feel about torture porn... actually I know the answer to that - Whedon mentioned in an interview in SFX magazine that he doesn't like it). The movie asks us to think about how healthy our attitudes to horror and to the victims in horror movies are (especially the oft-noted attitude towards blonde girls who have sex), and suggests we might want to re-think some of the cultural values these films reinforce.

Having said that, the writers obviously also love their horror, and the references to practically everything in the horror genre were great and very funny - and I'm not all that into horror, so I can't have caught more than half of them (though I was quite proud of catching 'We are not who we are', since I haven't even seen that film). I was mildly disappointed that, of all the possible horrible deaths our gang could have gone for, we ended up with zombies - I know they're very 'in' at the moment, but I just can't get that interested in zombies. I much prefer a good ghost story, or a scary vampire. (I really want to know what the locket the disturbingly-named Jules was about to put on would have conjured up).

The good thing about the zombies from my point of view, of course, was that they were summoned by reading Latin. Genre-savvy Marty begging (ironically-named?) Dana not to read the Latin was a joke straight out of Buffy (or The Mummy), but Brother and I laughed, and it's always good to hear a bit of Latin. If you want a magic spell or mystical incantation, Latin is your language. I also liked the sexy guy reading the Latin later on. Fifteen to twenty years ago, there would be one unattractive, nerdy character who might know Latin and who would probably die halfway through (or if he's lucky, halfway through the sequel). Now, though, being geeky (and wearing hot glasses) is more cool, so there's a stoner to play the nerdy role, and the sexy guy gets to be intelligent and read Latin (loved the bit about how the blonde hair dye is actually destroying Jules' intelligence as well).

There was a definite sense of Joseph Campbell and the idea of the mythic archetype around the roles assigned to the kids, but ultimately most of them are archetypes specifically from Western horror fiction and film, not of literature in general. The Fool is well known as an apparently universal archetype, and I guess you could make a case for the Whore. But this version of the Virgin seemed to me to be more the Final Girl of horror movies, signified by her little panties in her first scene that mark her out as playing the Sigourney Weaver role from Alien, with the anvil hammered in when Weaver actually turns up at the end. Similarly, I suppose the Athlete and the Scholar might be fairly universal, but these versions seemed more to be the classic version of the Jock and an updated, sexy Nerd from American horror.

Brother and I both really enjoyed this film, and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys horror movies (though if you're reading this, I hope you've already seen it!). It's totally mad, but since I thought it was quite possibly the funniest thing I've seen so far this year, I was OK with that (and it was such a Buffy-type of madness, I guess it didn't seem that strange to me). I loved all the random little extra touches, from the Japanese girls who manage to defeat the evil wet-haired girl ghost to Tom Lenk (who played Andrew on Buffy), as an intern, seen in the bottom corner on a TV screen as all heck breaks loose in the facility, holding up cards with something written on them. And whatever the writers intended, I like to think the world didn't end at the end of the film. I'm sure Percy Jackson can take care of it...

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  1. I haven't seen it as of yet, though I do like Whedon's work, and of course Hemsworth did this film awhile back, before he got all Thor-ed up....

  2. It's well worth seeing. All the cast are good (though the guy playing the stoner overacts a bit sometimes) - I've had a soft spot for Hemsworth ever since he made me cry as George Kirk :)

  3. I finally got to see this film a couple of days ago, so now I've read your post! One point you made me think of was how the Jock/Athlete and the Scholar/Nerd character seemed, at the beginning at least, as interchangeable. Jock Hemsworth is a college student who knows exactly which book to read to impress the professor and they have to gas him into being stupid (the whole "we should stay together/we should split up" routine). The Scholar/Nerd guy certainly looked and acted a bit of the Jock--he could catch an American football and looked buff in the two-way mirror. I'm not sure what to make of their interchangability. Maybe it's just another comment on the arbitrariness in horror films (like the order of dying isn't important, except the promiscuous blonde has to go first).

    I too loved the humor and especially the totally bonkers last half hour. The bleak ending seems to be a trend I've seen in recent horror films I've watched, like Drag Me to Hell and Paranormal Activity.

  4. They were a bit interchangable weren't they! Perhaps a comment on how movies force characters into certain roles when really they're not that different?

  5. You make these crazy connections I couldn't come up with in a thousand years! Reality TV shows and gladiators? It's perfect but it never would have occurred to me.

    I really loved the meta quality of the office guys watching and even betting on innocent people being killed. Leave it to Joss to make a horror movie that mocks the very nature of horror movies while at the same time acknowledging the culture importance of horror movies. That man, I swear.

    Loved your connection to Buffy. The Initiative finally got its shit together, eh?

    Also, I choose to believe Chris Hemsworth came back to life, turned into Thor and defeated the downstairs beings with the help of the Avengers. You can't prove it didn't happen.

    1. That's a good solution - and means we can follow it up with Thor instead of Wrath of the Titans, a much better movie!


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