The titular cabin in The Cabin in the Woods seems pretty run-of-the-mill—small, unassuming, common. But when an unseen cellar door opens, the cottage is suddenly much bigger and richer. What was previous seen of the cabin turns out to be merely the tip of the iceberg. There's more below the surface.
The cabin is a good analogy for this surprising, original, and inventive movie. What if horror films—like the slasher movie Cabin portends to be—are only a small, visible part of something larger? What if this connection, this greater reality, is the reason for all the very common archetypes, plots, and conventions they share?
It's an avant-garde re-shuffling of tired genre tropes—in other words, classic Joss Whedon, Cabin's co-writer (creator of TV shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly and director of Serenity and the upcoming The Avengers). In fact, Cabin can be seen as a natural extension of Buffy. Whedon responded to horror movies' tendency to slaughter the blonde cheerleader by creating one who the monsters had to fear. With Cabin, Whedon and co-writer/first-time director Drew Goddard (a stand-out writer on Buffy, Alias, Lost, and Cloverfield) don't just play with character conventions but shake up the genre itself, question deep-set traits, poke at our desensitized voyeuristic bloodlust, and mimic the manipulative process of making these movies.
How Whedon and Goddard approach this is best left as a surprise. As New York Magazine wrote, the "very premise is a spoiler." Suffice it to say, the slasher-movie storyline of college students (an alpha male, a bookworm, a stoner, a virgin, and a vixen) being slaughtered in the woods is only one of two intersecting plotlines. And not even where the film begins.
While Scream pointed out the horror genre's rules, Cabin in the Woods takes a deeper, more cynical post-modern aim at, it would argue, antiquated moralism behind the rules. While too much detail would be a spoiler, those in the film who dole out punishment for youthful indiscretions are of an older generation and beholden to "remnants of the old world." The film actively questions and brushes off perceived old thinking about morals. In this way, Cabin actually feels a bit like a modern version of how Victorian Age aesthetes, who in a time of emerging secularism and science, stressed a "seize the day" worldview over that of traditional Victorian literature. Wheaton College's Leland Ryken wrote that literature of this time "was often laden with philosophic comment and moralizing … [one author even] defined the function of literature as being to tell us how to live." Sounds a bit like horror flicks where the drug-using or promiscuous teens are first to go, right? Whedon and Goddard even employ an aesthete approach of indirection and suggestion (or maybe just sloppiness?) that forces the viewer to interpret any message. There are so many little strings of commentary (some feel half-baked or incomplete) that individual viewers may pull on different ones. Does the genre itself forbid the concept of free will? Have we been as manipulated as a horror movie character? But an echoing message to me was this: It's not worth abiding by black-and-white rules when we live in a gray world. And why do we enjoy the punishment of those rule-breakers so much, anyway?