I’ve long despised the trend towards slasher films set in isolated locations, wherein a group of dizzy young people find themselves dispatched using whatever means the filmmakers hope will excite the most horror/adulation from their audience. We’ve been inundated with this type of film since the 1970s, and while many have tried different approaches to set their story apart from the nine zillion other stories just like it, it seemed a particularly odd type of film to come from the pen of Joss Whedon. Or is it?
To be honest, its tagline gives it away. “You think you know the story.” Instantly it challenges the audience. Do we know the story? Or do we merely think that we do? Even the poster design points to the fact that things are not what they seem, and that the cabin itself is a space to be manipulated…although, manipulated by whom?
Five friends go to stay at a cabin in the woods, owned by the cousin of alpha-male Curt (Chris Hemsworth). On the way, they’re warned of its dangers by a crazy gas station attendant – a warning they choose to ignore. We’re all very aware that these are not just characters, they are also stereotypes – and very important stereotypes at that. Idiotic blonde, jock, stoner, virgin, scholar, mad harbinger of doom – the whole genre doesn’t work without them in some combination or other. True, they’re not always used on an individual basis, but look closely enough and you’ll see some version of them.
At the same time, a group of scientists set to work in an underground lab, reminiscent of Christof’s control centre in The Truman Show. It soon becomes clear that the main pair are controlling the cabin’s environment, although to what end? Is this some kind of 18-rated reality TV show, or government experiment? This being a Joss Whedon production, you’d probably tend towards the latter, but the truth is yet stranger still.
Thing is, the film is a peculiar hybrid of many other films (indeed, the crazed family of killers that arrive to persecute the friends could be lifted from any number of films, and I half expected to see Ash rampage through the woods with his chainsaw) yet somehow completely independent of them all. Sure, all of the elements are present but the combination, and the context surrounding them, turns the film into a mad sort of ‘meta-slasher’.
The design of the film, and its monsters, is gorgeous, with one particular scene involving a set of lifts putting the lobby scene from The Matrix to shame. The art direction surrounding the cabin nods to its slasher predecessors, while the basement acts as a sort of repository of nightmares. However, as well-designed and slick as the film is, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s Whedon’s glorious take on the Final Girl Theory.
Devised by Carol Clover in the wake of the slasher boom, the theory revolves around the idea that such films are populated by disposable characters, each of whom will be punished for their transgressions against the social norm inherent to each film, leaving a ‘last girl standing’, usually the virginal student who does her homework on time and babysits the neighbours’ kids without any interruptions from boys (see Laurie in Halloween). This Final Girl is the only character with the integrity and strength to defeat the monster/killer. The Cabin in the Woods highlights the importance of this cultural myth by making it central to the motivation behind the events of the film, but Whedon goes one step further and adds a whole new layer of mythology. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?
I really enjoyed the film, not only for its exploration of key horror theory, but also for its visuals, its strong characterisation, and its willingness to step outside the boundaries of what we’d expect, and to give us something new based on a very old and very tired formula. Full props to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard for giving us a slasher film that actually didn’t bore me.
4.5 / 5