Screening Log #73: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard
Starring Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins, and Bradley Whitford




As my graduate classes are resuming again, I’ll be attempting to pare my screening log entries down even further in the interest of keeping up with the blog and not detracting from my studies. Succinctness is a life-problem for me – which you know already if you’ve been reading the blog often at all – so we’ll see how this pans out.

Humour is a slippery subject to think about. Where does the humour of a scenario or joke lie and what is its ultimate purpose? Sure, everyone enjoys a good laugh from time to time, but what are the stakes of this activity; how does humour function in our lives? To abstract, in grossly compressed and simplified ways, some thinking on the subject: Freud argues that humour functions as a sort of release valve, a means to excise socially and psychologically inappropriate thoughts and impulses from the mind. Gallows humour, especially, functions as a means to deal with the looming spectre of death and the horrific. Henri Bergson sees humour as arising from the disconnect between social activities and reality and functioning as a sort of corrective force; humour corrects that which is other to social conventions, reinforcing social and cultural systems.

As such, it is unsurprising that humour has, with increasing frequency, been embedded into horror films. Horror, as a genre, performs many of the same functions as humour, albeit with diametrically opposed methodologies. Where humour makes spectacle of those who step outside normative behavioral borders, horror films reinforce the consequences of transgressing social boundaries by manifesting them as grievous bodily dismemberment leading to excruciating death. No biggie. Some horror films present themselves as being aware of this similarity, such as Scream, with their awareness of, and play with, the conventions of genre generating wit. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods presents itself as the latest, and perhaps most meta-cinematically aware – of this substrata of horror films.

The Cabin in the Woods actively comments on both the socially corrective and relief functions performed by the horror film genre. The film employs a purposefully archetypical cast of teens – the virgin, the athlete, the clown, the genius, and the whore – who retreat to a cabin in the woods and layers a meta-cinematic narrative over these events. The intentionally generic plot points and horrors that afflict the teens once they arrive at their remote destination are engineered by a group who tellingly work beneath the surface to choreograph, within the parameters of the group tacitly agreeing to their fates, the ensuing events with a mix of science – pheromones altering behaviour, constant surveillance, etc. – and slowly revealed mysticism – the events transpire to satiate some manner of ancient evil.

The film is able to at once construct a competent example of contemporary horror film while managing to deconstruct and interrogate how this genre of film functions. The controllers Sitterson and Hadley, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford respectively, orchestrate the fate of the teens on-screen in a manner that makes them an allegory for both the director of a horror film and a skewed representation of the subconscious; they reduce the teens to their necessary archetypes so that they are able to fulfill what their sacrifice to the old evil requires. Here, the old evil itself can be read in psychoanalytic terms as a return to the unconscious desire or the criteria required for the horror film to function as the necessary release valve of negative energy in the minds of the viewer.

The meta-generic nature of Whedon and Goddard’s script also allows them to often play against expectations to generate humour. Instances of typically morose horror elements are undercut by technological gags and gaffes, such as when a doom-saying gas station attendant working for the controllers is distraught at having his diatribe put on speaker-phone. Goddard’s direction is suitably broad and slickly indistinct, capable even if the archetypical nature of the film insulates from any strong critique of lacking a more purposeful or artful style. The actors’ jobs are configured in an interesting manner. Where characters are conventionally built and fleshed out over the course of a film, here they are instead actively reduced into less complicated versions of themselves: Curt, Chris Hemsworth, for instance, is the jock, but also a sociology major who the controllers act on to reduce his intelligence and induce the required alpha-male disposition. The film also plays with tradition in Marty, Fran Kranz, the stoner-cum-fool character, who, like any good Shakespearean fool, is actually the most situationally-informed member of the group.

The Cabin in the Woods functions as a clever and pointed deconstructing embrace of the horror genre, gesturing toward its psychological and societal implications. The film is certainly open to other readings as well, its meta-cinematic conceit opening space in its construction not merely for humour, but also multiple interpretations. Skillfully balanced on the fuzzy border between the humorous and horrific, the film above all playfully proselytizes for the value of film as both a mode of relief for the viewer and as corrective device for society.


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