Old Faithful: 6 Joss Whedon Stand-Bys Revived For Cabin in the Woods
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!
[Photo: Getty Images]