If you’ve read anything about Cabin in the Woods, you probably know very little about the film except that it’s supposed to be a genre-bending horror flick, its release has been delayed for two years, it was written by Joss Whedon, it got crazy buzz at SXSW, and it stars a now-famous actor who looks much, much too old to be sporting a letterman jacket. Any further details have been mostly deemed spoilers, though Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum managed to write a smart review without divulging too much.
So if you’re looking for a great review that won’t spoil all the surprises, stick with Schwarzbaum, because to convey how impressive this movie is from a feminist perspective, this review will wrestle with all the gory, gory details of the movie that no one wants to ruin for you.
Cabin in the Woods is a film that not only plays with the conventions of the horror genre, it exposes the falseness of gender stereotypes and lays bare what society is really afraid of—losing socially constructed femininity and masculinity. The film starts by introducing us to a group of professionals in an underground bunker who are preparing for a mysterious event—the atmosphere and security is reminiscent of a government defense contractor. We find out that their mission involves five college students who are on their way to hang out in, yes, the famous cabin.
The group of friends ends up being identified by the contractors as fitting into the typified horror genre gang—the athlete, Curt; the whore, Jules; the scholar, Holden; the joker, Marty; and the virgin, Dana. We soon find out that the contractors are orchestrating a complex ritual to sacrifice the group of unwitting students by letting loose supernatural monsters to kill the group—in a specific order—as an offering to bloodthirsty, ancient gods who, if unappeased, will kill everyone on Earth.
The contractors lure the group to the cabin, heavily monitor their movements, fabricate lethally advantageous environments, and even chemically alter the young adults’ moods with adrenaline and libido-increasing hair dyes and gases. Each of the victims’ statuses as archetypes of the horror genre—and by extension, of society—depends solely on these interventions. We see from the beginning of the film and through the characters’ own disbelieving dialogue that the athlete isn’t an alpha-male; he’s a brave but sensitive sociology major. The whore isn’t a sexed-up Paris Hilton clone; she’s funny, smart, and only blonde because the contractors manipulated her into coloring her hair with chemically laced dye. The scholar is smart, but he’s also handsome and strong. The joker is a pretty hilarious pothead, but he’s also the one that sees through the manipulations and ends up surviving improbably longer than any of the other victims, other than the virgin—who is not, in fact, a virgin.
It might not seem so revolutionary that the five characters don’t live up to the stereotypes that they’re being forced to play. Characters seldom do fit into these types perfectly. But what’s interesting—and downright revolutionary—is that Cabin in the Woods places these stereotypes at the center of the very existence of the world and then lets the world to burn.
After some requisite killings by a zombie family that the contractors let loose on the cabin group, we learn that the victims must not only play the roles of the five types of people—they also have to die in a certain order. And as anyone who has ever seen a horror movie can probably tell you, that rule actually just means that it matters what order the women are killed in—sluts first, prudes last. The men can die somewhere in the middle, and they do. But the climax of the film comes when, against all odds, the joker and the virgin not only escape from the sequestered woods, where they were trapped. The pair also manages to break into the contractors’ compound and unleashes a warehouse full of supernatural monsters that kill the very people who were manipulating the cabin-goers’ fates. After finding their way to a temple where the blood sacrifice is ultimately offered, the contractors’ stern director (Sigourney Weaver) reveals that the only way for the world to be saved is for the joker to die—the virgin can live or die according to the ritual, as long as she’s the last survivor. In the end, the pair decide that, if the world as we know it relies on this kind of sacrifice, maybe the world should just end.
This message makes for a nonconventional horror movie (or any movie) ending, that’s for sure. The last shot of adventure or horror films generally don't signal armageddon. But the sentiment behind the ending is what’s revolutionarily feminist about this film. If, symbolically, society is based on sacrificing the freedom to perform femininity and masculinity in whatever way you choose—if civilization as we know it relies on these stereotypes for its very survival—then it deserves to burn to the ground. There’s nothing morally redeemable in the virgin killing the joker to keep this system intact. They both throw that option out and embrace the end of the world, guessing that maybe it’s time for another species to have a shot at life on Earth.
Cabin in the Woods will likely get feminist criticism for maintaining some of the Mulveyan conventions of classic narrative cinema, especially the let’s-stare-at-the-whore’s-ass shot or the horror-flick staple of tainting sex scenes with violence. The film could have made the same point about film and societal conventions without including these stereotypical ways of simultaneously fetishizing and chopping up women’s bodies onscreen.
But what saves this film from being dismissed as a typically misogynistic, if unique and very funny, horror movie is its statements about the ominous, systematic way that people’s lives are disciplined. In this film, that is represented in the very real way that the contractors trap this group of college students in an environment where they never had a chance to survive. And although the plot begs an obvious question—why not just summarily execute these five in the desired order—the answer seems simple to anyone who has ever read pessimistic early film or Marxist theory. The fact that the victims are offered a choice of which monster to invoke allows the powers that be to blame us for our own demise, forgetting the fact that we were always only ever choosing which way we would die. These particular victims refuse to make the ultimate sacrifice to the society of the spectacle. And they take the system down with them.
Bechdel Test: Fail
Overall Grade: A-
Feminist Grade: A-