Note that this is an extremely
twisty movie, and experiencing these twists in context is significant to the experience of the movie. Not that I think the movie isn't enjoyable if you know what happens; I think I liked it even more on the second viewing. But there is definitely something to be said for puzzling through it on your own.
So if you have any interest in seeing this movie, and you really should, even if horror isn't normally your thing (the horror in this movie isn't going to stick with you, and is mostly presented in a very...THIS IS A MOVIE fashion) approach this post cautiously.
There are two principle ways, I think, that Cabin in the Woods can be read. These need not necessarily contradict each other, but I'm still going to group them separately because one represents what I took from the film after my first viewing, and the other is the viewpoint of my favorite film critic, which can be read more thoroughly here
The structure of Cabin in the Woods leads me to want to relate it to two other recent movies, which I feel it most resembles. These are Inception and Sucker Punch.
Inception is like a stack of frame stories, with the sci-fi dream exploration angle being used to sensibly connect several set pieces from disparate action movies. Cabin in the Woods works in reverse, with the primary narrative being framed by another simultaneous one, and then the two collide for a larger, overarching third narrative in the final act, and then all of this is framed by the metaphysical narrative of the watching of the film itself. No, I'm not crazy. This is important.
Cabin in the Woods presents itself as a standard slasher film. Entirely too standard, really. And this is the point. Similar to how Sucker Punch attracted the Male Gaze with the promise of fetishistic action gear, and then turned around to indict that very audience for being brought in by equating them to rapists in the film itself. Cabin in the Woods uses its play on tropes as a kind of broader criticism. Who exactly is being criticized is the subject of my aforementioned division of readings, so I will get into that later. For now we need to cover how the film actually does what it does.
We have five college students. They are embarking on a weekend camping trip at a woodland cabin recently purchased by one of their relatives. On the way, they meet a foreboding gas station attendant at an ominously decrepit location, who all but outright tells them that they are going toward their deaths. I hope this is sounding familiar so far.
The kids continue on, engage in some cabin shenanigans (including the sexy wolf scene), and eventually find themselves in the cellar. There are all sorts of mysterious objects for them to choose to trespass with, but before any of the others can do anything with what they've been drawn to, one of the girls begins reading from a diary. This ends with the recitation of an incantation, which brings a family of redneck torture zombies to life to do to the kids what redneck torture zombies do.
But what was the deal with the cellar? Why was a creepy diary sitting next to a puzzle sphere and a necklace on a bridal dress? Because the entire situation is a setup. The kids are afforded a degree of autonomy; choosing to ignore the creepy attendant and then picking up their own evil item, but the broader situation is being directed by...middle aged people in some kind of office complex?
This is actually revealed in the opening scene of the movie, but the interaction between this group and the college students isn't made clear until further in. We don't know why, but these people are controlling the situation that our kids are in, and they're approaching it like it's some kind of routine project. Eventually all of the kids are killed off, except for the "pure" one (we are informed that her death is optional, so long as she's the last survivor). The men and women in the office begin to celebrate their success, when it turns out that one of the characters (the comic relief) wasn't quite as dead as they thought. He manages to save The Virgin (she's not really a virgin) from the last zombie attack and they work their way to the grave that the zombies originally came from, which The Fool has discovered to be an elevator that leads into the office complex.
Well, sort of. It actually leads to a repository for horror movie stock creatures. When the workers discover where the kids have escaped to, they lower their elevator into the complex to attempt to kill them themselves. What ends up happening though is that the Virgin and Fool manage to release all of the other creatures and they go on a murderous rampage, killing everyone in the building in the extremely memorable third act. Along the way we discover that what's happening here is a ritual, meant to placate slumbering "Evil Gods." The kids have to die, according to a specific formula, or the deep ones will rise and destroy the earth. The final showdown of the movie takes place above where these gods are slumbering, it doesn't go according to plans, and the movie ends with their awakening.
So that's what happens. Here is what it all means
On the surface, the movie appears to be a kind of homage to the traditional horror genre. On closer inspection though, it's actually rather critical of it. Or at least it's critical of someone.
What I took from my first viewing is that the film was calling out movie-makers for relying on the same tired formulas that, frankly, barely make much sense in the context of real, functioning human beings. The kids in the movie don't originally fit into their roles. But they're being exposed to a number of chemicals that gradually change their personalities. One girl becomes the whore, another the jock, the Virgin can't figure out why she's acting as if she's never had sex before, and a football player spends the last half of the movie in glasses and reading Latin. In one particularly memorable scene, The Jock decides that the group needs to stay together no matter what. This visibly frustrates the office workers, who are forced to give him a sudden blast of brain-addling chemicals, He immediately reconsiders, suggesting that they should split up to "cover more ground." Everyone except for the Fool, who due to a mix-up has been rendered immune to the chemical suggestions, thinks this is a marvelous idea.
Consider that for just a moment. We have kids doing the traditional horror movie thing, but they are only doing so because they are being chemically inclined. The only way anyone is going to be stupid enough to do what people do in horror movies is if they are under the influence of drugs
This, for me, was ultimately the point of the movie. This genre needs to grow up. The whole act of "choosing" in the cellar full of eldritch objects emphasizes just how copy-paste these things are. This movie had zombies, but you could have dropped in any other nightmare creature and it would have literally made no difference. There are several references to the system needing to "crumble," and this is what informs the decision of the Virgin and Fool to allow the gods to rise in the end.
Between that, the complex and unconventional plot, and the use of bigger, darker, and ultimately more evil creatures in the end (the evil gods) I saw the film as a sort of call to action. For Hollywood to stop churning out the formulaic and mundane, and for filmmakers to act with a degree of originality.
Bob Chipman, though, took a less encouraging view. Though ultimately I think it's what truly gets to the heart of the film. I acknowledged that the evil gods were an obvious metaphor for the audience in some capacity. The whole movie was done to please them, ie us. In the brief sex scene, one of the office workers tells a new guy that they "Are not the only ones watching" and that they must "Please the (the word used is either audience or customer)."
But in the end, everything doesn't go just so and the gods rise in a vengeful fury. The very last scene of the movie is a titanic arm bursting through the titular cabin. This, as it turns out, is our vengeful fury. The gods are a stand in for the audience who were brought in expecting a traditional horror movie, and were essentially chastised for demanding the same thing over and over. The film points out the ridiculousness of horror cliche, and then it points a finger at the audience and shouts "You did this" (ergo, Sucker Punch). It even goes so far as to suggest comparisons between this spectacle and something like ancient Coliseum bloodbaths. Here, the office workers become filmmakers. They want to put out the best product, and they want to be able to do it their way, but they are bound by rules, lest the gods rise up and destroy their (financial?) world. Because audiences do not want to be challenged. They have expectations, and when those expectations are not met, they respond with vitriol (The Chipman article makes a link between this and the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle.) The closing shot of the movie, with the dissatisfied god literally tearing the setting of the film to shreds, might as well actually be the audience members leaving the theatre with cries of "what" and complaints of how "weird" the film was.
Perhaps the greatest credit of the film is the way that it handles all of the pointed criticism such that makes the film still extremely enjoyable. Make no mistake, Cabin in the Woods is a fun
movie. It cannot keep a consistent tone for more than a few minutes at a time, and bounces from genre to genre the way other movies change scenes. And all of it works
. This isn't the kind of horror movie that feels like it needs to be scary, it's one that wants to be fun! Even as it decapitates innocent twenty-somethings for our amusement.
Yes, that's part of the criticism too.