Joss Whedon's latest film, The Cabin in the Woods, has been out in theaters long enough now for a significant amount of reviews and commentary to be published on it. With few exceptions, the reviews have been positive, if not glowing. In this post I will supplement some of the commentary previously offered, and present a few observations that are worth considering in light of Whedon's latest work, and the current state of American horror films.
The Cabin in the Woods draws upon the basic storyline of previous horror films, with any number of slasher films coming to mind, as well as The Evil Dead. A small group of college students decide to get away for a weekend at a family member's cabin, which then sets the stage for their horrific experiences, much bloodletting, and death. Some have said that this film would have made an excellent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another of Whedon's creative exploits, and that is clearly evident in various elements of the movie, from actors who appeared in Buffy and Angel, to the secret underground organization controlling the cabin scenario which is reminiscent of The Initiative in Season 4 of Buffy, to the concluding apocalypse which was often referred to in the plural in Buffy.
As many reviewers and commentators have noted, Whedon not only draws upon familiar horror tropes, but also subverts them in true postmodern fashion. The result is an interesting and entertaining horror film which has appeal not only for horror fans familiar with genre conventions, but also others who might appreciate the humorous elements, as well as the play that Whedon has with standard horror fare.
There are a few aspects of The Cabin in the Woods that are noteworthy in terms of areas that have escaped much of the commentary I have seen on the film. First, is the recognition of the significance of monsters to cultures. Scott Poole, author of Monsters in America, has touched on some of this in his fine blog, but it is an area worth emphasizing again. At a couple of points in the film the audience is provided glimpses of various international governments that are using forms of the monstrous unique to their cultures as a means of frightening aspects of the local population. Japan is one nation that receives special focus as camera monitors show a classroom of students frightened by the traditional ghost girl familiar to American audiences in films like The Ring and The Grudge. Later in the film the camera pulls back to show an extensive collection of monsters in cages, running a spectrum from ghosts to werewolves to giant snakes and zombies. The point to recognize here is that Whedon recognizes the significance of monsters to every culture, the uniqueness of monsters within given cultures, and perhaps most interestingly, that the leaders of various governments are all too willing to use our monsters and our fears against us for various reasons.
The second aspect of The Cabin in the Woods that I found interesting was the connection of the monstrous and the death of the college students with some form of ancient ritual. Although those in control of the situation that leads to the death of many of the students seems more like a scientific or corporate entity, it is clear through the plot development that the students have become part of a long history of sacrificial ritual created to satisfy monstrous deities reminiscent of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. This idea was also found in both the Buffy and Angel television series, and it is obviously an idea dear to Whedon. Given that he is a self-professed skeptic one wonders whether this may be read as a critique of religious history, much of which includes an emphasis on sacrifice and ritual, or whether in some sense the Cthulhu mythos functions as an alternative spiritual mythos for Whedon. This may sound outlandish, but a similar dynamic can be observed in the work of Guillermo del Toro, and one writer has argued that Lovecraft's dream life included the mystical and esoteric, including the idea of the mythic "Old Ones," and that this in turn influenced his writing. Is it possible the nihilistic universe embraced by Whedon is transcended through Lovecraftian esoterica in popular culture as embodied by the monstrous?
One other comment needs to be made. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, many if not most commentators have expressed the idea that The Cabin in the Woods is revolutionary, with the potential to change the way in which horror films are made in America. While I have great appreciation for Whedon's body of work, including this film which for me was one of the more entertaining horror films in recent memory, in my view such commentary borders on hyperbole. Whedon does subvert contemporary horror, but he is not the first one to do so, and his subversion of horror tropes seem less than revolutionary. Perhaps such statements say more about the less than stellar state of contemporary American horror films than they do about the radical nature of The Cabin in the Woods. At any rate, perhaps this film will breathe new creative life into horror, and that won't be such a bad thing.