The Cabin in the Woods is a difficult film to review without giving away what needs not to be given away in order to preserve the viewer’s utter enjoyment of this amazing film. Throughout this film we are given hints to its premise, and half the fun (and there’s so much of it to be had) is working out what the hell is going on. If you haven’t seen the film yet, the best advice is to leave enough alone and avoid reviews until after the fact. While I won’t give away any spoilers, I advise it’s best to get there fresh (and therefore soon!).
First, it’s an excellent film, a film that is absolutely saturated with Joss Whedon (a real creative genius in my book) in the most satisfying of ways. Any fans of “Buffy” will see the same use of horror, wit, and humour that we’ve come to be used to from his works. From the opening scene we are introduced to a banal bureaucratic modern office space in which a mundane domestic conversation is occurring between “Steve” and “Richard” who are going on about childproofing a house for an impending baby, while trying to get a soda out of an inoperative coke machine. DVD box set aficionados will immediately be turned on seeing their favourites, Bradley Whitford from The West Wing and Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under as the ones having this conversation. Everything here is completely banal, and yet we know we are in for a treat.
The film is almost like a frame play following two concurrent storylines – the classic horror trope is framed by the Whedonesque back-story occupying the margins and literally, the underground. Where they intersect, I won’t tell you here, that’s half the fun of the story. The framed play itself is your classic horror, done particularly well. Five attractive young people off to a creepy cabin in the woods to be massacred one by one. However, as this is a Whedon creation, the classic horror tropes are played with to the viewers delight, and the ironic or ‘postmodern’ way they are worked through make the Scream franchise look downright amateur.
It’s as if Whedon winks at us “in the know” and challenges us to make connections. Some are easy, we have The Evil Dead and Friday the 13th right off the bat. The references to Night of the Living Dead are also obvious, but we also get a peak into Hellraiser, The Ring, and a wonderful that seemed to be choreographed straight from Dawn of the Dead. Another great but often overlooked horror My Little Eye is featured heavily.
But how long does it take you to find the extended joke of the Scooby Gang (so often referenced in Buffy) or those flashed seconds, without comment, that uncannily remind us of the butchered sisters observed by Danny Torrence in the hallway of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (I’m absolutely convinced that in this scene the body parts were placed in exactly the same position as those girls from The Shining). More ‘inside’ jokes include some funny cameos that will excite the Buffy fan to no end!
This is purpose, humour, and artistry in horror! We get the thrills of the horror while at the same time trying to solve a cryptic crossword of the narrative. What the hell is a going on? Well, I said I won’t tell, but I will allude to one psychoanalytic theory that speaks to the narrative without giving it away.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, the opening of this film is all ego; white office hallways, a vast complex of corridors, offices, and office workers surrounded by clean lines, white floors and walls, and a highly sophisticated technological world surrounding them: climate controlled. There is ease here, and total control. The ego, you see, seeks to manage as its primary job. It manages both the internal and external worlds, and gradually fools itself into believing that it has more control than it actually does. The frame of this story is about the ego, the ego of our entire culture, what is framed, is a concept of how to manage not just our individual ‘id’ – but our global id too.
Many theories of horror film include the idea that they represent the “id” – the instinctual aspects of ourselves, our desires, both sexual and aggressive. Our ego takes the job of making sure that our desires are tempered by “the reality principle.” We cannot have everything (like our id wants) so we have to keep the id back, under control. Freud described this as the ego being like the rider on a much more powerful horse. When it comes to horror films, this horse becomes something much more monstrous.
Without giving too much away (I want the reader of this review to enjoy the film as much as I did) this film is about what is commonly referred to as “the return of the repressed”. For Freud, our primitive wishes do not disappear, but they emerge in a variety of ways including our neuroses, our symptoms, and most interestingly our dreams. Many theorise that cultural products like film, literature and theatre are like our culture’s dreaming. But what is our culture dreaming and why is it dreaming it now?
The sense of this film is that our veneer of culture and civilisation is just that – veneer. Underneath the clean hallways of the office building, the straight ties of the men and the neat business suits of the women, the banal conversations that intersperse the “very important work” that is going on in this mysterious hive (echoing “The Initiative” from Buffy), there lies something huge and monstrous. On the most basic scenario we can think of the recent banking scandals and how voracious greed and irresponsibility to the social contract led to financial catastrophe: all dressed up in pinstripes and silk ties.
However, this is small stuff compared to what occurred in the face of the daily banality of the nuclear plant at Fukushima in the years before the earthquake and Tsunami. Surely this was just a mundane place to work, filled with banal conversations around the water cooler, when within seconds the illusion of safety was replaced with the emergence of an almost unthinkable horror. Think too, about the world trade centre, another location, that by day was the site of the most conservative looking businessperson going about their day, likely to feel that most things were under control. Then. Bang. Horror.
Our sense of safety in this world is often an illusion we keep from going insane (or at the very least an unending experience of existential angst). Whether it is the forces of nature that come to surprise us, or our own darker nature, we do our best to live in the office space above the giant swell. Most of the time this works out pretty well for us. Joss Whedon, however, wondered what would happen if there really were a “return of the repressed” on a global scale, and that’s what this film is about. Strangely, it doesn’t seem at all pessimistic.