The Cabin in the Woods is, in many ways, the quintessential Whedon project. I say this not because of the snappy dialogue, kickass female protagonist, or strong supernatural bent, which is what people usually mean when they say something is “Whedonesque.” I mean, it has all of these things, but the most important element of the film is, I think, its approach to genre.
See, when people talk about Whedon and genre, it’s generally a discussion of him “deconstructing” it or “subverting” it. And while I suppose these are legitimate descriptions, I think it’s more accurate to say that what Whedon actually does with genre is respect it. He begins with a silly, often worn-out premise (monster fighting, westerns, supervillains, horror stories) and plays with them, stretches them, considers their potentialities and forces them to go to those conclusions. Now, to be sure, part of this process does include poking holes where they need to be poked (and nobody deflates cliche or points out indulgences like Whedon), but it also leads to taking these genres very, very seriously.
So, yes, Buffy wears its ridiculousness proudly in its title, but it, along with Angel, legitimately considers the implications the story has for questions of power, repentance, identity, and, always simmering just out of sight, good and evil. Doctor Horrible went a step further, proclaiming its absurdity in the title and being a musical, but it also asked us to examine ambition, groupthink, and the dangers of idolization and getting too caught up in a story. I’ve expressed elsewhere my ambivalence about the movie Serenity, but I can’t deny that it took the morality of the western, with its unattached wanderers, and placed that in dialogue with the needs of society, and raised questions about the individual’s obligation to the many.
Cabin in the Woods approaches this in a slightly different way. Ultimately, it does force us to consider ideas of sacrifice and authority and our own complicity in, well, horror, but it does this by (okay, seriously, I shouldn’t even have to say this, but HUGE POTENTIALLY MOVIE-RUINING SPOILERS AHEAD, SO DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY WATCHED IT AND DON’T WANT THE EXPERIENCE RUINED FOR YOU) revealing the mechanics behind the genre. So there are stock characters (the jock, the brains, the loose woman, the stoner, the good girl) in a stock plot (yeah, brilliant idea ignoring the creepy guy at the abandoned gas station to go to the isolated cabin and play in the basement), but the movie is more interested in showing how these archetypes are created than with just watching them fulfill expectations. One of the cleverer bits of the movie is the steady progression of each character further into their archetype (the jock gains a football, then a letter jacket, the bad girl’s shorts get progressively shorter, the brain develops glasses). By suggesting there’s an evil corporation behind these cliches, and that these characters, in real life, are much more complex, Whedon is able to indulge the consequences of the tropes without insulting the audience’s intelligence. So, we can still enjoy the terror of watching the blonde be dragged away by a psycho redneck zombie, but by peeling back the curtain, as it were, the film makes this development have a certain kind of sense and justification. It explains the cliches, and so we can forgive its use of them.
And, of course, Cabin in the Woods displays one of the characteristics of Whedon at his best; namely, a hell of a lot of fun. In the avalanche of monsters at the end of the movie, one can almost hear him gleefully realizing that holy shit I can do this now! (and with actual special effects instead of crappy rubber masks!) There’s a point, somewhere around the third act, when the movie just takes a turn for total batshit insanity, and holy fishsticks, Batman, it is glorious. Because one of my favorite things about Whedon is the incredible creativity and imagination he brings to the stories, and while that’s usually evident, it’s most apparent when he just loses all filters and just does whatever he damn well pleases. To me, his greatest talent is his ability to realize when a story is going off the rails, and then leaning into the skid instead of trying to fight it.
But the really sneaky, genius part of Cabin in the Woods is that it ends up being a horror film anyway, albeit on a larger and more apocalypsey scale than we went in expecting. Because the point of the movie was never to subvert the horror genre; it was always to bring it to its logical conclusion. And so, yes, the evil corporation that was seemingly orchestrating the whole thing turned out to be part of its own horror story, because that was the only ending that made sense. Whedon never wants to just dismantle a genre, because, on some level, he enjoys them too, and just taking them apart would remove all the fun. By engaging with it, he managed to make it smarter while retaining its strengths. It’s still a horror movie, but it’s a horror movie that thinks about what a horror movie does, and how that’s kind of horrifying as well (it’s not a huge leap to see parallels between the evil corporation and the audience, especially when they start talking about how the show needs to be good).
But really, all of this is my very roundabout way of saying that Cabin in the Woods is a complex, densely layered enterprise that’s also a hell of a lot of fun. It’s not a parody or deconstruction, because those would be too easy; rather, it’s an intelligent conversation with the genre on its own terms. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it redefines the genre, but it definitely redefines our notions of what the genre can do.
And also, it ends with a giant hand coming out of the ground, and if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that every movie would be better if it ended with a giant hand tearing up through the earth.