Old Faithful: 6 Joss Whedon Stand-Bys Revived For Cabin in the Woods

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The Cabin in the Woods is mind-blowing, daring and revelatory – unless you’re a nerdy girl who grew up watching Joss Whedon’s television series. Then it’s just kind of nostalgic and occasionally tiresome, like talking to an ex at a high school reunion. Yes, the movie’s a lot of fun, especially if you didn’t start watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from its low-budget beginnings. But if, like me, you’re intimately familiar with Whedon’s works and regular crutches, you’re going to see a lot of things you recognize in Cabin, which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator and director Drew Goddard.

My Whedon bona fides: I introduced all of my high school friends to Buffy and liked much of it, more of Angel, lost interest in the problematic Dollhouse before it supposedly got good, loathed Firefly but liked Serenity, and found Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog terribly sour. Haven’t paid any attention to the comics, and I’m sure I’ll see Avengers along with the rest of humanity. On that basis, I offer six tired tropes that Whedon overuses in Cabin in the Woods. If you’ve seen some or all of those previous works, you might already know what you’re getting in for with Cabin, but for the rest of you, spoilers ahead. Serious, serious, Village Voice-style spoilers.

1. The Banality of Evil
Cabin in the Woods starts with two office drones, hitting the vending machines and alternating complaints about their wives with complaints about office politics. So of course they’re flunkies engineering murderous ritual sacrifices on behalf of vengeful gods, right? By the time the office drones (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) started taking bets on how exactly the five sacrificial college students were going to die, I had really, really gotten the message: corporations are evil, and evil is often mundane. Whedon has made a career out of juxtaposing the horrific and the ordinary: there’s the evil mayor in Buffy, worried about personal hygiene while plotting world domination, or the demonic law firm controlling the Angel characters’ lives, or the high-tech, rapist corporation running the Dollhouse. Firefly and Serenity even made “big damn heroes” out of the space equivalent of Confederate soldiers, fighting the good fight against the ominously bland central government that won a civil war. We get it: those of us in jobs with benefits have probably sold our souls to get them.

2. The Have-Your-Cake-And-Eat-It-Too Attempts at Feminism
“Women’s issues.” That’s one of the first lines in Cabin in the Woods, a sly nod to some of the coming plot twists but also a succinct summary of a lot of what the movie gets wrong. There are some particularly lascivious camera shots up the long legs of one character, whose blonde hair dye literally turns her into a sex-crazed “whore.” (Yep, the two main women in the movie are slotted into the ritual-sacrifice roles and horror-movie tropes of “virgin” and “whore.”) Having one character snark in a corner about how sexist or gross something is does not absolve you of writing those sexist or gross jokes. Having your bad guys beg an invisible cameraman to show the "whore's" breasts – and then showing us, the audience, those breasts – doesn’t make you any less complicit in exploiting that actor’s body, however much you want us to think that you’re intellectually mocking horror movies’ tendencies to do so.

Whedon’s written some good women characters, but for someone who calls himself a feminist, he’s wildly inconsistent. Yes, he gave us the powerful blonde cheerleader vampire slayer, but he also gave us the rape fantasy of Dollhouse, not to mention the regular slut-shaming of Firefly. (Prostitution is honorable in this futuristic society – but you should still be ashamed of your profession!) Cabin’s definitely another step backwards: the central character is a “virgin” who spends the movie reacting to things rather than demonstrating any agency. Her one potential hard decision is taken away from her by the diffident slacker boy who’s really the moral compass of the movie. Which brings me to…

3. The Lovable Slacker Hero
Or, Xander Harris saves the day. Can I blame Whedon and his Xander and Wesley and Wash and Topher for helping beget the era of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen? Yes, boys: Sometimes girls will find you attractive if you’re awkward and funny and nerdy and into comic books. And sometimes your crippling lack of self-confidence and ambition is neither funny nor sweet, but please feel free to keep on telling us how very special you are and how you’re the only one worthy of saving the day (as your bong hits allow). Of course the moral compass of Cabin in the Woods would be the friends’ lovable-loser pothead – the “fool” in the parlance of the movie’s ancient gods – who sees more clearly than any of them. And of course smoking pot, through some fantastical plot device, actually become the smartest defense mechanism any character could have in the movie. Of course.

4. What Lies Beneath? The Big Bads
The gradual revelation that the ultimate villains are underground, ancient gods was probably Cabin’s least surprising twist for me. It’s not your usual horror movie reveal – unless you’ve watched the very same thing over twelve cumulative seasons of Buffy and Angel. Once Whitford and Jenkins reacted to the first student’s death with a prayer, it became obvious that this whole thing hinged on some sort of ritual sacrifice to serve the old gods. I know I’m supposed to think this is inventive, but it really just made me wonder where Buffy Summers was on vacation and why they couldn’t call her in. She would have found a way to kill the old gods, plug the Hellmouth, sass Sigourney Weaver and walk away in five minutes, flat.

5. The Humor in the Face of Horror
Some of this works, some doesn’t. I enjoyed watching wave after wave of nightmare creature gleefully wipe out pretty much every character in Cabin’s last thirty minutes -- it was like a wacky Pitch Black. And of course Whitford’s character, who’s been rooting all movie for a Merman to kill the sacrificial college students, meets his own demise at the hands (or mouth) of the Merman. Which was funny. But then Whitford reacts to the sight of his impending doom with… a quip. I mean, seriously? You see a demon coming to attack you as your friends die all around you, and you spend your remaining seconds of life on sarcasm? Whedon’s TV shows have always been adept at marrying the humorous with the horrific, but that moment pulled me out of the movie more than anything else.

6. The Dark Ending
To end on a laudatory note – I loved Cabin’s ending, and it was one of the more surprising aspects of the movie. Our heroes failed to die as planned, thus dooming the rest of the world; the last shot shows an angry god’s hand, deprived of its ritual sacrifice, reaching up to destroy all of humanity.

Although I shouldn’t have been that surprised — Whedon is good at these unexpectedly dark endings. Angel still has one of the best, most memorable finales on television, leaving its ragged band of heroes in a dark alley as they prepare to fight the mustered forces of darkness. I also loved Buffy’s first network ending, in which she sacrificed herself to save her family and friends. (She then switched networks, got resurrected, and put on a musical, but I still remember that fifth-season finale much more than the series finale two years later.) Some of Whedon’s dark endings haven’t felt as earned – my eyes are still rolling from the predictable, woman-in-refrigerator plot of Dr. Horrible – but for Cabin, it worked. Even if it did prove that the main characters were horribly self-centered little twerps. I can’t wait till Whedon kills off all of the Avengers!

Maria Aspan is a writer living in New York whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Reuters and American Banker. She Tweets and Tumbls.

[Photo: Getty Images]



Comments

  • "By the time the office drones (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) started taking bets on how exactly the five sacrificial college students were going to die, I had really, really gotten the message: corporations are evil, and evil is often mundane."

    But they weren't evil. They saved the world by doing dirty deeds. The exploration of "ends justifies the means" was very heavy handed, especially for Joss (though he had much less time to work with than we're used to). It was practically shoe-horned into two scenes;ex-army guy talking to Amy Acker's characters and a little monologue (interrupted by tequila) from Whitford. Corporations are evil was not the message I got. Misguided, perhaps, but not evil.

    "whose blonde hair dye literally turns her into a sex-crazed “whore.”"

    I've only seen it once, so I could be wrong, but didn't the hair dye make her dumb and the booze + forest mist make her horny? Nought wrong with horny, by the way.

    "Yep, the two main women in the movie are slotted into the ritual-sacrifice roles and horror-movie tropes of “virgin” and “whore.”"

    Yes, they were... that was LITERALLY the point. The chemicals pumped in through ventilation shafts, in their food and drink were designed to turn them into movie tropes, which they weren't to begin with; the "virgin" was sleeping with her professor, for example. Also; the rest of the main cast were turned into (or there was an attempt to turn them into) movie tropes; jock, sensitive nerd and moron. Or to use the Ancient One's parlance; athlete, scholar and fool. The jock was actually a sensitive sociology major, the sensitive nerd the best player on the football team and the moron was a genius.

    "Prostitution is honorable in this futuristic society – but you should still be ashamed of your profession"

    Only according to Mal (who else refers to Inara as a whore aside from the asshole who threatened to beat her up?), who we all know is a dick only capable of school-boy levels of emotional control and display. We all know he is a dick because he calls Inara a whore. That's the point.

    "the central character is a “virgin” who spends the movie reacting to things rather than demonstrating any agency"

    She's not a virgin. She's made to act like the "virgin" trope of crappy horror films by the people behind the cameras. It's, to be all cliche here, meta. Whitford, Jenkins and Acker represent horror movie makers, while the rest of the drones are the audience and the kids in the cabin are the actors.

    "Having your bad guys beg an invisible cameraman to show the "whore's" breasts – and then showing us, the audience, those breasts – doesn’t make you any less complicit in exploiting that actor’s body."

    But you don't mind the ripped guy getting his chest out, right?

    Actually I had an initial knee jerk to this scene in the cinema. Boobs in a Joss film? Then I realised I'd been crowing about the equality of nudity in Spartacus (so much penis) and that we'd already seen two of the three guys in the film wet and mostly naked. I had more of an issue with the second scene opening with a girl in her underwear, while the kids were not meant to be under any heavy influences.

    Again, this scene was meant to be meta; we're supposed to see ourselves and our own reactions in those of the employees AND the Ancient Gods. This was WHY I had had a knee jerk reaction, why I felt uncomfortable. I've been desensitized to boobs on film. They don't turn me on but they don't shock me (I see enough babies suckling on them at work, thank you). However, boobs in Cabin did shock me and it was BECAUSE of the reactions of the employees and the Ancient Gods to the titillation. I realised what I was seeing.

    I can't actually speak for anyone turned on by small, bouncing balls of fat, but the fact that a reaction of one kind was elicited in me suggests that a reaction might have been elicited in people attracted to human baby feeding devices. I honestly don't think this would have worked without the brief, long distance shot of boobs.

    "Her one potential hard decision is taken away from her by the diffident slacker boy who’s really the moral compass of the movie"

    No it wasn't. She got mauled by a werewolf. The stoner had nothing to do with it.

    "The Lovable Slacker Hero"

    I don't see the problem here... gimme a stoner philosopher above an over achieving jock any day. They have better conversations... and more weed.

    "through some fantastical plot device"

    In a film with ancient gods, hundreds of heinous, supernatural monsters, mind altering chemicals employed by a dark and ancient cult gone hi-tech and a cabin in the woods.

    " What Lies Beneath? The Big Bads"

    I had this pegged from the opening credits. I didn't think it was a reveal, really. And I don't see the problem you have with it. Ancient Evil is classic horror movie stuffs; Cenobites, Deadites, Cthulhu Mythos, oh my! Anyone who knows Joss was alerted to Ancient Evil by the phrase "them below" ("it eats you from your bottom up!") in the second scene in the bunker. Anyone who is not a big Joss fan is mildly surprised as the revelation builds. It works for both sides of the audience.

    I loved this film. I laughed hard most of the way through (nearly fell off my seat at "husband's bulge" mostly due to the Twitter fun of #SpikeVisitsTheCabin and when the Athlete tried to cross the ravine on his bike). I thought the characterisations could have done with a bit more work BEFORE the kids got hit with the mind altering chemicals, to show the real difference in their behaviour (rather than having the stoner tell us about the changes). Overall though; I loved it. I loved the comedy, the meta fun, the homages and piss takes, the violence and gore, the ending and the cameos.

  • Jay says:

    I stopped reading after "loathed Firefly"

  • Akira says:

    "I stopped reading after "loathed Firefly""

    Yeah I clearly cant take anything here seriously because you already claim to not like most of his work. Move on. Let the movie making to the geniuses of the world

  • Alex says:

    I'll spare all of my bile for the rest of your article, except to point out one thing that I think nicely demonstrates your level of intelligence:

    "whose blonde hair dye literally turns her into a sex-crazed “whore.”"

    That word does not mean what you think it means.

  • William says:

    "You know that film you enjoy? Well, you're stupid for liking it because if you were a REAL fan, you totally would have known like all that stuff was done before, and it was totally better then, but its like a rip off now, and I'm completely bored, but that's because I was like a fan before you guys even knew it was cool, whatever, I don't even care."

    Thanks, internet!

  • Matt G says:

    Another I'm-too-cool-for-the-room dossier on something she once loved but now has to spit on.

  • Woland says:

    hmm, I think film critics used to call this repeating themes and style tendency auterurism.

  • Ian Ironwood says:

    Your "Whedon bona fides" are abundantly weak. That's like taking your first three free introductory courses at a dojo and then saying "I know karate!"

    "loathed Firefly"

    Yep. You lost all credibility a) as a sci-fi fan b) as a Joss Whedon fan and c) as a television critic by uttering this. Firefly was one of the best consistantly written and produced television shows in history. Admitting that you "loathed Firefly" is like a film student saying "Godfather? Didn't care for it." That is, everything else that falls out of your mouth is immediately suspect.

    As far as Joss' 'feminism', I think it's time both he and his fans abandoned the term. Because any time you try to write anything with a strong female character and mention sex AT ALL, you get bashed by feminists. The feminist ideology espoused today is a long way from the "equal rights" origin of the movement, and amounts to a gynocentric ideology in support of exclusively women's issues and interests, no matter what. Every time Joss tries to do anything with a female character, y'all are all over him for how he's somehow betraying his feminist "street cred".

    Face it, Joss, the few women who don't like your stuff because of your less-than-perfect feminist credentials aren't worth catering to anyway. If they haven't figured out by now you don't want to punish and enslave women and actually respect them then they aren't likely to. The bulk of your fans don't care if you're a feminist or what kind, they just want to see the story get told. And if that story has controversial elements (say prostitution or rape) that imply that maybe feminists don't have THE WHOLE PICTURE and that maybe, y'know, DUDES have a perspective that doesn't necessarily involve pathologically Betacized Xander-ish attempts to kiss feminine hiney in the vain hope of eliciting interest.

    There is someone trying to have their cake and eat it too. And it aint Joss

    • Maria A. says:

      "You lost all credibility a) as a sci-fi fan b) as a Joss Whedon fan and c) as a television critic by uttering this." This is possibly my favorite reaction ever, thank you.

  • Jack says:

    Yup. Also, duck the fan boys are throwing things. If they were more self-critical, they would realize that they follow Mr Whedon because they want to belong to another Joss Whedon stand-by: the better than popular clique that is smarter and cooler than the popular kids. Sadly - even in fiction -any clique tends to behave as all cliques do. They are scornful of all non-members and mean to lesser moprtals. Get a backbone guys and go it alone.

    • Ian Ironwood says:

      @Jack Typical reaction to the appreciation of an artist who "got popular" -- someone slams his/her fans as being mindless followers and gets the unique opportunity of "out-cooling" the "cool kids" with your jaded and shallow assessment, therefore making you tragically hip. If you detect scorn among us, it is because of folks who refuse to acknowledge quality when it's staring them in the face. And if you think we're mean, then it sounds like someone didn't win that costume contest, did he?

      In point of fact, a LOT of Joss' fans have "gotten a backbone" and gone it alone, far more than most fandoms. I love Joss. I'm a NYTBS author. What have you done that allows you to be so critical?

  • Kate V says:

    Shard's comment are dead-on. Let me add:

    "The gradual revelation that the ultimate villains are underground, ancient gods was probably Cabin’s least surprising twist for me. It’s not your usual horror movie reveal – unless you’ve watched the very same thing over twelve cumulative seasons of Buffy and Angel. Once Whitford and Jenkins reacted to the first student’s death with a prayer, it became obvious that this whole thing hinged on some sort of ritual sacrifice to serve the old gods. I know I’m supposed to think this is inventive, but it really just made me wonder where Buffy Summers was on vacation and why they couldn’t call her in. She would have found a way to kill the old gods, plug the Hellmouth, sass Sigourney Weaver and walk away in five minutes, flat."

    Okay, you know that the ancient gods are the movie audience, right? Not literal underground gods?

    • Bob says:

      Interesting theory. I hope I"m not one of the ancient gods...I needed somebody to explain the movie's last shot to me three months after I saw it.

  • Ben says:

    If anything, the "whore" character is one large point in support of feminism. The whole concept is that these movies turn people into general characters. Let's look at the evidence in the movie of the blonde's actual personality. While she plays flirtatious in the truth or dare games, she is actually quite reserved-she is extremely reluctant to have sex with her boyfriend in the woods, and needs the addition of pheromones to help with her already drugged-via-hair-dye libido to get going. "Hair dye literally turns her into a sex-crazed whore"--sounds like a great commentary on how blondes are portrayed!

    Actually, the twist that I thought was going to happen was not that the stoner was still alive, but that the engineers had made a mistake and killed the virgin first, and that they had swapped by accident who the whore was and who the virgin was. After all, we have evidence in the very first scene that Dana has had sex--with her professor no less--whereas there is no evidence that Jules has had sex yet. Curt mentions "this is why we came out here" while trying to convince her to have sex with him (after, of course, his personality has altered towards alpha male), implying perhaps that smart and sensitive sociology major Curt had set up a special weekend for Jules and he to have sex for the first time?

    And as far as the "whore-degradation" going on in Firefly, Mal was the only one who looked down on her profession, arguably solely because he was in love with her and was upset that she spent time with other men as her job! She is in no way degraded as part of the show... it's really pretty embarrassing that you came to that conclusion, although those types of misinterpretations make it clear why you loathed one of the best written and produced shows on television ever made.

    • Maria A says:

      "Actually, the twist that I thought was going to happen was not that the stoner was still alive, but that the engineers had made a mistake and killed the virgin first, and that they had swapped by accident who the whore was and who the virgin was."

      This I would have liked to see.

      As for Firefly ... it seems that no critical opinions of that show are allowed, ever. Is that not what's truly embarrassing?

      • Ben says:

        Of course critical opinions are allowed, but they need to be well thought out and have good evidence for them. Calling the Firefly characters "confederate soldiers" is ridiculous. The war they fought in wasn't a civil war as there wasn't a unified nation to begin with, and the war is far more comprable to Imperialism and, post-war, unjust colonial rule. So you say you "loath" a beloved show, of which people are especially sensitive given it's early cancellation (which is a good reason why it's difficult to criticize, as it wasn't give a full chance), and your two reasons you give are completely unfounded.

  • I'm not sure I'd call the old gods the "big bad" in Cabin and I'd say this is a lot less judgmental and absolutist than a lot of Whedon work. It's not cut and dried whether the final action to subvert the ritual was the right one. The Fool questions whether it's the right thing to do but he's got a pretty strong reason to be biased. His inevitable death makes it easy to be quippy about the whole thing. He's not the one with an out.

    I'm also not sure 'corporations' is where you should jump with the Organization. Government seems a more reasonable parallel; The profit to this place is that the world continues to exist. It seems likely that the other countries are arms of the same organization but perhaps they're just co-operating to try to keep the world together. The competition between them seems pretty much limited just to bragging rights, not some desire to triumph over rivals.

    So then the point becomes, what's too far to go to keep the majority safe? And does it matter if you cause suffering along the way? That question gets asked by the new employee in the beginning - should we ever get used to it? And is it naive to claim that what was once justified becomes unjustified solely because of the spirit in which its done?

    Cabin isn't a perfect movie by any means but it meets one of my main criteria for being good - there's a lot of interesting implications and ambiguity to discuss.

  • Mary says:

    Slating Firefly - never a good start, as mentioned several times above. Also having watched Buffy since the beginning, and then Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse and Dr Horrible... I agree that "Whedon’s works and regular crutches" are all evident in this film.. however I didn't feel bored by them whatsoever, more impressed by the new reincarnation of them. As a big Whedon fan, it felt like home. The over-arching metaphor woven into CINW seemed clever and fresh to the big screen for me personally... overall, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  • Bob says:

    HoLd Up. The Whitford meets Mer-Man was like the best part of the entire movie. Hold up.

  • I really enjoy the blog.Thanks Again. Will read on…

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