As the reigning King of Geekiness, Joss Whedon’s every move is scrutinized and discussed ad nauseum by the comic book community. During the last decade or so, he and the likes of J.J. Abrams have contributed to projects that have had undeniable crossover appeal. Essentially, Whedon, who’s best known for his work in TV (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly”) made nerdiness cool, not to mention highly profitable. But at his core, Whedon is something of a cultural commentator. His famous retort to a writer who asked him, “Why do you keep writing these strong female characters?” was, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
So it comes as no surprise that Whedon’s latest project, “The Cabin in the Woods,” takes a critical look at horror films. Directed by “Cloverfield” writer and frequent collaborator Drew Goddard, the film centers on five college-aged friends who take a weekend trip to a remote lakeside cabin. However, a pleasant getaway quickly turns deadly as the mystery behind the cabin slowly comes to light.
Discussing the plot further would commit the cardinal sin of “spoiling” the movie, but suffice it to say that its central conceit is ultimately rather satisfying. Though “The Cabin in the Woods” masquerades as a clichéd horror film, its real purpose is to dismantle—and, by extension, satirize—the genre and its techniques. Unfortunately, Goddard and Whedon are all too eager to pat themselves on the back. They do a fine enough job of undoing the horror genre, but the idea in itself isn’t particularly revelatory.
Horror cinema has the perpetual impression of growing stale, when really, it ebbs and flows in a way that other styles of filmmaking do not. Like a pendulum, it tends to swing between two poles: nostalgia and reinvention. Currently, horror cinema is on an undeniable nostalgia kick. The films of Ti West are classic throwbacks, while the recent onslaught of remakes and grindhouse-inspired fare suggests a longing for the old school.
The most recent reinvention phase came in the form of “torture porn,” where film franchises like “Saw” and “Hostel” took the notion of objectification to new—some would argue arbitrary—extremes. “The Cabin in the Woods,” meanwhile, occupies the complacent space between nostalgia and reinvention in that it criticizes both.
This doesn’t exactly make for stable ground. The film takes gleeful shots at both sides yet doesn’t contribute anything new to the conversation and often flounders in flimsy contradictions. Goddard and Whedon also aren’t averse to taking shots at the audience. Horror directors have long toyed with audience expectations, implicating them in ways that make them active participants in a film’s narratological strategies.
“The Cabin in the Woods” implicates the audience in a different way by decrying their appetite for violence. At its core, the film is about the ontological nature of horror movie iconography and the way audiences give credence to images of violence that in other circumstances would be viewed as detestable.
Though they’re not entirely off the point—the entire purpose of a torture porn film is to witness the depth of depravity—Goddard and Whedon are imprudent to look down their nose at a community with which they willingly align themselves.
To make up for this, they insert a plethora of in-jokes and sight gags in what amounts to a game of bingo for horror aficionados. It’s an enjoyable ruse for a short while, though it quickly wears its welcome. Some of that effort should have been spent ensuring that the film had its own legs to stand on.