Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Review by Kelly
“Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin, where they get more than they bargained for, discovering the truth behind the cabin in the woods.”
As a massive Joss Whedon fan since the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Welcome to the Hellmouth in 1997, I have watched everything that man has created. From the ill-fated Firefly, and the doomed yet brilliant Dollhouse, to Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, he has never let me down. I adore everything he has done, even the wonderful adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing! You can imagine, then, my excitement for the release of Cabin in the Woods. It was released in 2011, before Whedon’s huge directorial debut with The Avengers (2012). Cabin was highly anticipated by me as I knew of director, Drew Goddard, as he wrote some later episodes of Buffy along with another movie I really enjoyed, Cloverfield (2008). Both Goddard and Whedon wrote the movie, Whedon produced it and Goddard directed it. It stars Chris Hemsworth (Curt - the jock), Kristen Connolly (Dana - the virgin), Anna Hutchinson (Jules - the whore), Jesse Williams (Holden - the scholar) and a Whedonverse favorite of mine, Fran Kranz (Marty - the stoner). The Whedonverse is essentially the world of Joss Whedon who often reuses a variety of the same actors in his work. You will also see small roles from other Whedonverse alumni like Amy Acker, Tom Lenk, and Bradley Whitford. I just love seeing those familiar faces.
Cabin in the Woods starts out with scenes at a seemingly normal office building with workers just going about their regular, everyday business jobs and then slides into the opening of many horror movies; a bunch of college kids are getting ready for a weekend away at a friend’s cabin. The basic horror archetypes are there: the dumb blonde, the nerdy virgin, the jock, the brain, and the stoner. You know these kids are going to get hacked and slashed and you can’t wait to watch it! As the story unfolds you see that this isn’t your regular horror story and there is something much larger at play. This time the odds are bigger, and the stakes are higher.
This movie was made for horror fans, by horror fans. Goddard has stated that Cabin in the Woods is a “love letter to all horror cinema”, and Whedon said it is a“very loving hate letter”. Whedon is aware of the problematic past of horror cinema, especially its misogynistic roots.
Which brings in one of the greatest points of the movie; the characters are forced into becoming these caricatures of horror movie victims. Jules is turned into the “dumb blond whore” and a hypersexualized woman, whereas we know she is pre-med and her actions are well out of character for her, based on the reactions of her friends. Dana is labeled as the virgin, but we know for a fact that she is not one. Dana turns out to be incredibly smart (only one to believe Marty later in the film), resourceful and the first one to kill one of the zombies. The horror tropes of old are used against our modern, progressive, sex-positive characters. Nowadays, Jules can be an overtly sexual being while at the same time being a med student. Dana can be intelligent, caring and a virgin, that's OK. When we think we are going to get our classic slasher movie Final Girl, we don’t! Long gone are the days of Carol Clover’s, writer of the infamous Men, Women, and Chainsaws, definition of the Final Girl. As per Clover, the Final Girl is the sole survivor of the group of people (usually young adults) who are chased by a villain, and who gets a final confrontation with the villain (whether she kills him herself or she is saved at the last minute by someone else, such as a police officer and almost always a man). She is also of a sort of 'privilege' because of her implied moral superiority (for example, she is the only one who refuses sex, drugs, or other such behaviors, unlike her friends). Now our Final Girls can be anyone.
Our male characters are not at all exceptions to this rule either. Marty, our stoner, normally would be seen as highly unintelligent and a total piece of fodder for the killer in a slasher film. However, he is the one from the get-go that is strongly suspicious of some underlying, sinister, plot. He has incredible comedic talent and timing. Marty is actually one of the strongest characters out of the five, even more so than our classically handsome jock and scholar. I want to live in this world where Fran Kranz is better than Chris Hemsworth! Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, his character Curt is turned into this drunken, super horny jock. After multiple attempts to get Jules naked and have sex with him it finally, almost, happens. You can imagine that if this was a real-life scenario he would be incredibly respectful and trustworthy of her dismissal. We don't dwell on it too much watching the film but that's slightly problematic in the sense that we know for the Old Ones to be placated that there needs to be sex, the whore needs to sin, so therefore she could be punished. Unfortunately, it can be seen that she doesn't truly consent to the sexual acts that happen but she has to be coerced into it. In our current political climate, we know how women are punished for their sexuality and this is kind of a low point in the film. But, this does play into the concept of them being in a horror movie and following within those classic, out-of-date movie tropes. As Marty points out to us in the film, Curt has a full academic scholarship in Sociology and is far from that brutish athlete archetype. Our handsome scholar, Holden, is actually one of the least interesting characters because it seems as though he isn't fully needing to be manipulated. He exists more as a token of sorts for the archetype and not as the perfect ideal.
Another aspect of this film I definitely noticed upon re-watching it is the usage of color. I love how the color palette changes for when we are in the “movie”, and then in “reality”, at the office building. In the “movie”, it’s warm with earthy and red tones whilst the office is cold and bright with shades of blue. The usage of color in film helps provoke a mood, a feeling, or to create tension in a scene. On this subject, Toronto cinematographer Brandon Mercer had this to say:
“One of the most important and striking aspects of any art medium is its use of color to incite a psychological response from the audience, and film is no exception. In fact, color can be utilized as an essential component of storytelling. Its usage can be the perfect visual counterpoint between imagery and sound. It can be utilized to heighten a character's motives, the vibrancy or dullness of a location, and even in some cases, the film's usage of color can tell you more about the film than the words could.”
Rich colors like red promote feelings of passion, violence, and danger, whereas blue provides feelings of passivity, coldness, and isolation. As per Studio Binder, the world’s leading production management company, these are dueling colors and when used in contrast to one another it’s associated with conflict, internal or external. We immediately feel for Marty, Jules, Dana, Curt, and Holden as they are full of youthfulness and ignorance. They struggle to survive and continuously help each other, even if in vain. The warmth of the cabin, fire, and sun can’t protect them but they relish in it anyways, and we are drawn right into the story. For Sitterson and Hadley, they are bound to their job and it’s hard to feel empathy towards them, even when they do show sensitivity to their work. They work in this cold, sterile environment, creating these horrific scenes to satiate the Old Ones, isolated from the true horror of it all.
The movie completely subverts our expectations as horror fans by giving us a refreshing take on the horror genre and a true monster mash. It’s a meta-horror film as well, taking itself only as seriously as it needs to. Andrew Patrick Nelson from the article Trick R Treat, The Cabin in the Woods and the Defense of Horror’s Subcultural Capital: A Genre in Crisis? states that “....The Cabin in the Woods is remarkably like Scream in its self-reflexivity: events within each film follow the patterns laid down by earlier horror films and thus each film offers a critical commentary on itself, a process that the viewer, also aware of the genre's conventions, is made a part of.” When we think that we are going to get a happy ending, with evil defeated at the very last moment, we don’t. I really do love an unexpected, bleak, apocalyptic ending.
I also enjoy the fact that Cabin has Joss Whedon all over it. From the dialogue to the “whitecoats” doing the biddings of the “Old Ones”, it sings pure, wonderful Whedon. He regularly creates genre hybrids (Buffy, Firefly), relishes the concept of fighting against an oppressive system (Dollhouse, Serenity, Buffy) and writes witty dialogue (Buffy).
Cabin also surprises us with Sigourney Weaver and the ending credits blasting Wish by Nine Inch Nails. Although I don’t agree fully that the history of the horror film is hugely problematic, I still love what the movie had to offer me. I would highly recommend Cabin in the Woods for fans of Drew Goddard, Joss Whedon, meta-horror, horror comedies and overall for every single horror fan. I think it has something for everyone and is a funny, intelligent, and refreshing watch.