SPOILER ALERT. This is an analysis of The Cabin in the Woods not a review. I make no attempt to conceal the film’s plot, in fact I explain it in detail. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should leave this page immediately.
Why do you want to watch The Cabin in the Woods? Is it the involvement of Buffy, Angel and Firefly supremo Joss Whedon, who acts as co-writer and producer? Is it the almost universally positive reviews that have helped a small cult classic become a commercially viable hit? Is it the promise of a fresh spin on a popular genre that’s loaded with intriguing twists and turns? If you answered yes to all or any of these questions, you were right to do so. All are valid reasons. The Cabin in the Woods is a smart and scary film that’s brimming with Whedon’s trademark wit and originality. It is indeed a film that you should want to watch. But again I have to ask: why do you want to watch it? It’s a horror film. People are going to be killed, maimed and tortured. They are going to be put through terrible torment and piercing pain. Why would you want to see a film like that? No…really? Why?
The Cabin in the Woods asks all these questions and many more besides. Telling the story of a group of students who visit the eponymous location and are one-by-one killed by zombies, it repeatedly offers satisfying twists and turns. The first, and biggest, is that the cabin isn’t real. It sits atop an underground bunker that’s populated by a top-secret group of (presumably) government agents who use it and many other similar bases across the world to trap and kill the unlucky souls they’ve chosen to inhabit these set-ups. They do this because beneath their bunker lies yet another level, this one occupied by ancient Gods who occupied the Earth millions of years ago. The agents’ job is to kill the students and offer their blood to the Gods as a ritual sacrifice. In The Cabin in the Woods, nothing is as it seems.
One of the biggest bluffs is the depiction of the lead characters. Our five heroes have been carefully constructed by Whedon and writer/director Drew Goddard to comment on the way horror cinema allows the audience to distance themselves from the death on-screen and further enjoy the horror. As the film begins, each character is a rounded, complex figure who we like and identify with. They draw from and yet still defy genre convention. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) is an athlete, but far from a typical jock. He’s sensitive and smart, offering our final girl and token ‘virgin’ Dana (Kristin Connolly) advice on her education. Once in the cabin, the agents manipulate him, turning him into the group’s alpha male. His girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison) is an attractive and sexually active woman, but by no means the slut convention dictates she should be. When she enters the cabin, the machinations of the agents bring out her wild side. She accepts sexual dares and gives a lapdance to Curt’s friend Holden (Jesse Williams). The real and relatable human beings we saw at the start of the film have become cardboard clichés. They have to be. Their murders are more enjoyable that way.
The pleasure we take from those deaths is one of The Cabin in the Wood‘s primary thematic concerns. This is a dissection of the horror genre, screen violence and our obsession with both. Images of images of horror fill the screen as Goddard repeatedly references indicators of sight. Monitors, windows, mirrors and eyes all take prominence here, constantly reminding us that we are watching a film. In one scene, two characters agonise over whether to take advantage of the voyeuristic thrills offered by a one-way mirror, and in another all five of our leads stare at various ancient artifacts in the cabin’s cellar. Goddard cuts to close-ups of their eyes, longingly admiring the objects they are holding. We know they shouldn’t look (genre convention has taught us that), but we don’t want them to look away. There wouldn’t be a film, and we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the images of horror it will provide, if they did.
As we become more alienated from the teenagers, we feel closer to the agents. They, like us, are watching and enjoying the action, even eating popcorn and drinking soda at one point. The film is unsettling because it creates in the audience a sense of guilt and culpability. We are disgusted by the agents and their callous actions and in turn disgusted with ourselves. If they’re the bad guys, then so are we. This idea is nothing new – it’s been done before by directors such as Michael Haneke (Funny Games), Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes), Marc Elliot (My Little Eye) and Eli Roth (Hostel 1 and 2). Here though, Whedon and Goddard twist things. These movies generally put the audience in the place of bad guys who are clearly bad, so the films simply show us why we are wrong to enjoy horror. The Cabin in the Woods offers the other side of the debate to balance things out.
As the film progresses and we learn of the motivation behind the agents’ plan, we’re forced to re-evaluate our feelings about them. Our ‘bad guys’ are actually working for the greater good. They may be callous and cruel, but without them, we’d all be dead. As these characters have such an understandable motivation, The Cabin in the Woods not only condemns us for enjoying violent imagery, but also understands why we enjoy it. We need the fantasy of fake violence to satisfy our natural intrigue for real violence. We watch horror for the same reason we can’t turn away from a car crash or a crime scene: to experience trauma in safety and comfort. We watch horror, the film understands, to satisfy the beast below.
But what, or who, is that beast? The Cabin in the Woods‘ final, and greatest, trick is to show us who we truly are. By the end, we’re not the kids, who we hoped we were at the start of the film, or the agents we feared we were as it progressed. We’re something much, much worse. The three layers of the agents’ base represent the three levels of filmmaking. The kids in the cabin are the actors, playing out a scenario. The agents in the bunker are the behind-the-scenes crew – directors and producers – inventing that scenario. The ancient evils below are we, the audience, enjoying it.
Just like in Funny Games and The Last House on the Left, we’re the monsters, we’re the irresistible evil – but unlike those films the ambiguity remains. In the closing scenes, one of our two survivors debates whether to complete the agents’ scenario, kill her friend and save the world or abandon it, save him and let humanity burn. It’s a terrible choice, an impossible one really, and that’s the point. Whedon and Goddard are leaving us with a question that’s tantilisingly difficult to answer. What kind of civilisation, they ask, needs to placate its hunger for violence with yet more violence? A hand that rises up to destroy the world in the final shot gives us their answer, but what’s yours?
A second reading – desensitisation
This reading is by no means the only one the film offers, just the one that most clearly presented itself to me. I touch on it in this analysis, but The Cabin in the Woods also says some pretty interesting things about our desensitization to violence. In this reading, the most important exchange in the film is the one that takes place between female technician Wendy (Amy Acker) and one of the facility’s security guards (Brian White). She attempts to ease his discomfort with the job, saying that you “get used to” the horrendous imagery. “Should you?” comes the reply.
Audience identification never drops down to the third level in this reading. We remain bonded with the agents as they watch events in the cabin. When the nightmare creatures they use in their scenarios are let loose and attack in the film’s third act, they are really attacking us for blindly enjoying horror films and never really considering their full implications. To further emphasise this point, Goddard and Whedon create an interesting binary when our two lead agents (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) are killed. Whitford’s character dies comically at the hands of a Merman – he has spent the film hoping that a merman will one day be used in one of the scenarios. Jenkins’ character dies in a more realistic manner – he is accidentally stabbed by Dana. By presenting us with two versions of death – the fake and the real – Whedon and Goddard ask us to question the nature of cinematic violence and our reaction to it.
In the finale, they ask us to go beyond the film and question violence and death in our own lives by using the emotionally provocative and ambiguous device I mentioned earlier. The end of the movie therefore is strangely happy. As a hand raises up out of the cabin signalling the end of the world, Whedon and Goddard have succeeded in their aim. They have shaken us out of our apathy, brought true violence to the big screen and forced us to re-evaluate screen horror as an emotional, unpleasant and, above all, real thing.
A third reading – censorship
As there are three levels to the film, I thought I’d produce three possible readings. As well as commenting on voyeurism and desensitisation, The Cabin in the Woods is also about censorship. At the start of the film, the characters discuss GPS and one rants about how society is too careful. He half-jokingly suggests that we’ll eventually become so obsessed with safety that we’ll place chips in our childrens’ heads to make sure they’re not in danger (of course, the discussion is another of the film’s references to surveillance and seeing). Later, during the one-way mirror sequence, the mirror is revealed when a character is unsettled by a violent painting on the wall. By taking the painting down though, he only reveals something even more unsettling.
The film can therefore be read as a metaphor for our fear of violence, our bid to suppress it and the problems that emerge when we succeed in doing so. The agents in this reading perform a similar task to censors, acting in the ‘greater good’ to withhold violence but ultimately only serving to unleash it. Violence is a natural human emotion, the film says. It can’t be suppressed, and if we try, it will spill over in an even more shocking dispay of death and destruction. This reading, of course, contradicts the other two, but that’s what makes The Cabin in the Woods such a rewarding film. Like the cabin seen in the poster, it twists, turns and leaves its audiences delightfully dazed and disorientated.