What is Really Lurking Underneath ‘The Cabin in the Woods?’
While it is true that ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is the most reflexive horror movie since ‘Scream,’ there is a major difference between the films’ employment of self-awareness. ‘Scream’ simply takes place in a universe in which characters are familiar with other horror movies. It could pretty much be set in the real world. ‘Cabin,’ on the other hand, is very much outside that universe and looking in. It’s not so outside the fourth wall that characters know they’re just characters in a movie, but it’s pretty close.
Even more than a Charlie Kaufman brand deconstruction, ‘Cabin’ is pretty much just an illustrated term paper on genre theory. And now that the film has hit theaters and we can talk openly about it, let's grade that term paper.
[SPOILER ALERT - An open and honest discussion of pivotal 'Cabin in the Woods' plot points, including major spoilers, takes place below.]
As David Ehrlich says, ‘Cabin’ is an essay film, and the joke is that it could qualify as a documentary. But of course there is more to it than that. Cinema studies papers are rarely entertaining (though they should be), and certainly don’t work on the added level that ‘Cabin’ does, being accessible to viewers who take the entertainment at face value and would rather not over-think what this or that character really represents or what the ending means in terms of deeper analysis.
Then again, many moviegoers will not enjoy ‘Cabin,’ because of the very point that the film makes as one of its possibly interpreted theses. That is, deviation from convention will disappoint the mainstream.
Like numerous geek-enamored genre flicks (‘Inception,’ ‘Dark City’) this is a movie about moviemaking. This is not a crazy theory, in fact co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have acknowledged that they are basically represented on screen by the controllers played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. And if that weren’t already obvious enough, the role played by Sigourney Weaver is referred to as “the director.” That could make the gods, who must be appeased by the adherence to certain rules of the horror genre, producers or studio execs or anyone else in Hollywood that depends on the financial security of familiarity.
But I like to think of the gods as the audience, a part of the movie business that is even harder to please these days than anyone actually working in the industry. The reason that studio execs would pressure genre rules on to the engineers, controllers and director behind the curtain of ‘Cabin’ is because mainstream moviegoers themselves depend on those conventions to be followed. If a horror movie, for example, does not meet the demands of strict character tropes and basic plot points, if it attempts to deviate for purposes of freshness and originality, the majority of viewers will end the world -- that is, the movie in question -- with a figurative bomb.
There are other ways to read the gods as moviegoers. Ehrlich (in a podcast) and Ethan Alter (in his review) both address them as symbolizing our own thirst for blood and scary stories, as one of the longest known and most universal staples of human culture. Fitting to ‘Cabin’ specifically, but we can consider this movie as working with horror only because it’s such an easy genre to play with. Those movie gods could also have rom-com and action-adventure stations out there in the universe that ‘Cabin’ is set in.
There is also a different kind of movie authority who throws a fit on the Internet whenever there’s some little lack of fidelity in the adaptation of a beloved creative property (see whiners regarding ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘The Avengers’ and thousands of other prior films). That sort of attachment is akin to the bond people have with uniform and unoriginal entertainment, a like-minded preference for recognizable, predictable, cookie-cutter movie products. If the female lead in the horror story within ‘Cabin’ isn’t a virgin, or if the muscular male lead is intelligent and into economics textbooks, that’s likely to throw people off as much as any unorthodox casting tweaks with a movie based on a best-seller.
Whedon has said that ‘Cabin’ is “basically a very loving hate letter” to the present state of the horror genre (so presumably he means for it to be specific, but that doesn’t change the response to the film’s broader consideration), which is certainly more friendly than saying it’s a criticism of today’s general movie audience, which has bad taste. He's not intentionally saying this just because he needs a lot of that mainstream crowd to see his movie. But his problems with horror, as well as all problems with the staleness of movies, is in part a problem with the audience that keeps paying for that stuff while ignoring the more creative releases.
That said, it’s not that surprising that ‘Cabin’ has been disappointing audiences, who’ve given the movie a Cinemascore grade of ‘C’ (with women it’s a ‘D+’) and have been reported to be walking out in numbers relative to ‘Tree of Life' even though most critics would give 'Cabin in the Woods' an A.