Cabin in the Woods (2011)

The Twilight of the Humans

In her negative review of 2011’s The Cabin in the Woods, academic film critic Cynthia Fuchs invokes the feminist analysis of the modern American horror film. Building upon an epigram from Carol Clover’s foundational study of the slasher film, “Her Body, Himself,” Fuchs laments the smug superiority of self-reflexive horror films such as Wes Craven’s 1996 film, Scream: “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.” That is to say, as in any slasher genre piece, the filmmakers punish women who have sex, graphically and brutally, without forcing the viewers to interrogate what it means that they take pleasure in such depravity.

We might nitpick at Fuch’s denial of the gender play of The Cabin in the Woods. There’s a terrific scene early on in the film where nice guy Holden undergoes an ethical dilemma, finally deciding to tell virginal Dana that he can see through a one-way mirror that she’s about to undress. His dilemma is mirrored in gender reversal when Dana suddenly has to stop gazing at Holden’s spectacular abs after they’ve switched rooms. However, Fuchs’ worries about the horror film’s sexism are generally correct. And yet, this analysis sidesteps what I found so exhilarating about The Cabin in the Woods.

It seems to me the pertinent chapter from Carol Clover’s excellent book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws is not the one Fuchs uses, about the virginal final girl who survives the phallic monster, but instead the passage in which Clover observes that horror films are obsessed with the relationship between a safe, urban modernity and a backwoods primitivism. From Psycho to Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the abiding fear of modernity is that our triumph over barbaric nature can never be completed. The Cabin in the Woods is a virtual deconstruction of this concept, whose final reel theorizes the place of the horror film in the history of human civilization in as stunning a pictorial frame as has ever been captured on celluloid.

This ending is based on a remarkable narrative trick. The film begins with two scientists, Sitterson and Hadley, running what looks like a cross between a James Bond villain’s lair and General Hospital. The film then shock cuts to half-dressed teenagers getting ready for their trip into the woods. For the first act, the viewer is puzzled as to the relationship between the kids’ flight from the city to the remote cabin and the disaffected scientists. We think the film solves it for us when the name of the African-American man working at the lab, horrified at his colleagues’ indifference to human suffering is revealed to be Truman. Aha, I thought! The Cabin in the Woods is merely a horror film rip-off of The Truman Show, that is, it is about a reality show about a terrible house, The Hunger Games for the zombie set.

When Truman asks, “Does the Director know about this?” it seems that Fuchs’ interpretation is correct, that the film’s smug self-reflexivity is pointing back to the making of the movies: pop culture superstar Joss Whedon puts into motion his director, Drew Goddard, in a story about the television lab director’s putting on of a horror show featuring our intrepid, cabin-bound teenagers. But this turns out to be merely a red herring. Instead, what the science lab is doing is not producing entertainment, but a ritualistic sacrifice of a virgin to monsters to keep the gods at bay. The Cabin in the Woods thus extrapolates the concerns of the modern American horror film to the very Jungian basis of all narrative, storytelling to keep us alive in the face of impending death.

We begin to understand this when Dana and Marty survive attacks by zombies to discover an elevator beneath the cabin that leads directly to the lab. On their descent, the film’s most stunning shot reveals a massive array of horror film beasties in glass cages, ready to be activated by the kids in the cabin choosing their clichéd method of sacrifice: the rotating cube from Hellraiser turned spherical; the diary of a family attacked the undead, straight out of Night of the Living Dead; and any number of horrifying monsters from the dark recesses of the human imagination.

All hell breaks loose as the scientists attempt to kill the kids and complete the sacrifice of Dana, the virgin, to appease the contained titans. As monsters escape their cages, and the power of scientific culture begins to collapse, the Director appears on screen the first time in the film. Played by Sigourney Weaver–Ripley from Alien–the film achieves its greatest extrapolation away from the specifics of the slasher film toward the general functioning of narrative. The final girl of Ridley Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece tells the final girl of The Cabin in the Woods to just die already. When she refuses, and a monster eats the Director instead of Dana, the gods triumph and return to wreak primitive havoc on industrial modernity.

Here, The Cabin in the Woods reaches the highest level of mythic articulation of any horror in the history of cinema. The last shot of the film features Dana and Marty huddling together as the subterranean lab crumbles, and a huge arm of a titan stretches upward to the surface of the Earth. The moment beautifully inverts Richard Wagner’s Romantic celebration of human triumph in his tetralogy of operas, The Ring of the Nibelungen. In the final act of Part Four, Gotterdammerung—“The Twilight of the Gods”—the petty bickering of the gods leads to their destruction, as the dawn of man is celebrated with the crumbling of Valhalla. At the end of The Cabin in the Woods, the obverse occurs, as the fall of technocratic man results in the rebirth of the primordial power of nature. The Cabin in the Woods thus beautifully transcends Clover’s interest in the cultural specifics of gender and modernity in the horror film, instead pointing toward a timeless, mythic understanding of the struggle between civilization and nature.

– Walter Metz