[SPOILERS] The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers: Celebrating and Deconstructing Genre Film

Joss Whedon’s involvement in The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers this summer represents two opposite takes on current film genres.

The first, Cabin, as mentioned in my last post, is a transgressive entry in horror movies. It attempts to lampoon and dissect the current “torture dumb teens” clichés of the industry. The Avengers, meanwhile, is a celebration of the superhero form. Its tropes are treated with reverence rather than bile, an attempt to hold up what’s being done right in a golden age of superhero film making.

Now, Whedon wasn’t the only man behind each film. He only co-wrote Cabin, and while he directed The Avengers, he’s dealing with a preexisting universe and has had a build-up of approximately six movies. In both, however, he’s definitely a welcome addition to the team. Whedon has garnered a massive fanbase due to his respect for every medium in which he works. He has a long history horror, dating back to his work on the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2002). I don’t think he always produces perfect entertainment, but he does put himself wholeheartedly into his projects. 

The Cabin in the Woods has a group of teenagers manipulated and slaughtered by a sinister organization. Apparently, it’s been responsible for every contrived horror situation to befall a group of young people for centuries. “Ritual sacrifices” are made in order to sate the masses with no respect towards their intellects or tastes. Characters we grow to care about are killed gruesomely in true Whedon fashion while small jokes are sprinkled throughout.

Co-writers Drew Goddard and Whedon use this conceit to ask why we continue to watch these sorts of scary movies when the trajectory always seems to be the same. Cabin in the Woods shows young adults being purposefully tricked and drugged into acting like clueless individuals, deciding to split apart the group when there’s strength in numbers or going out into the woods for ill-advised, salacious adventures. They repeatedly make mistakes and are put into positions where they’re unable to consider the consequences of their actions. 

The Avengers has a similar shadowy organization: S.H.I.E.L.D. They probably haven’t killed thousands of people over the centuries (probably), but their efforts also prove to be dark. It’s the characters of this film and their reactions to this attempted puppet show that gives audiences what Whedon truly wants to celebrate about superhero movies: the power of the individual in times of hopelessness.

S.H.I.E.L.D., as in the Marvel comics, is a fictional government organization headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Struggling to deal with otherworldly threats, Fury assembles a group of superheroes. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s intentions in this case are noble even though it’s hinted their methods, specifically when it comes to the many deadly uses of the mysterious Tesseract, is not.As previously mentioned, characters we grow to care about are killed gruesomely while small jokes turn the film into lighter fare. These movies are more similar than one would think despite starkly different tones.

In Cabin, the initial conflict lies in whether or not all the characters will perish at the hands of the organization and its bloody ritual. The Avengers, however, has its characters asking why they should deign to listen to S.H.I.E.L.D. and work together in the first place. Captain America (Chris Evans) has strong reservations about returning to active duty, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is there to settle old debts, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is only moved to join once he realizes how much he’s needed. The rest of the characters in this super group, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), are critical of hopping onto the band wagon.
It’s the autonomy and distrust of each character that changes the piece into a celebration of heroes and critical-thinking people.Superhero films tend to be about the importance of an individual. One man or woman rises to be a game changer in a world or system gone wrong. Like horror films, this idea is one that potentially appeals to very base instincts. In horror, those instincts are fear, and Cabin in the Woods implies we can be doing a lot more with what fear means and why it’s often too convenient to have trusting young people menaced by forces beyond their control.  
In superhero films, though, those “base” instincts revolve around power fantasies and personal actualization. Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) put the intelligent and savvy title character in the position as Gotham’s savior. Superman Returns (2006) goes so far as to become a direct Christ-allegory, an individual putting it all on the line to help a planet that may not even appreciate his efforts. 
The Avengers has its cast of heroes eventually banding together to save humanity. The characters, due to their respective natures, continue to distrust S.H.I.E.L.D., and wisely so. Nick Fury may succeed at manipulating them at some turns, but the film’s heroes are never entirely taken in. They are, after all, part of a genre that holds them up as role models and challenges them to be better, smarter people in order to aid those they love. Here, Whedon tells us, there is much to celebrate about their place in cinema.
The same cannot be said for the horror genre. This conclusion is clear in The Cabin in the Woods, where the bureaucrats and the unassuming young adults they’re trying to kill remain at odds throughout the film. It’s revealed that this organization, like S.H.I.E.L.D., is also fighting to protect humanity and does what it does for the greater good. This greater good isn’t good enough, however, and the film’s protagonists soon rise up against the organization with gory results. 
Whedon and Goddard, it seems, are raging against helpless character archetypes in this sort of cinema, manipulated every step of the way by trite situations set up by an unseen hand. The audience is left asking what they can do to make horror a more compelling genre, as this movie indicates it can be.

A similar challenge is left at the end of The Avengers. In this blockbuster, Whedon has taken all the ingredients of the film’s predecessors and distilled them into a well-paced, quip-filled, clever story with distinct characters. Unfortunately, not every Marvel film can claim all these traits. Joss Whedon is again asking for improvements in a genre, but in The Avengers, he’s not just asking for them, he’s paving the way.

Dismantling the Cabin in Our Woods (Spoilers)

It’s tough to say if Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s meta-horror film will be remembered as the genre re-defining parody that Scream was in 1996 or a peculiar cult film separate from the current wave of torture-porn Saw movies. It’s hard to say which films will stay alive in the popular consciousness and shape others. Cabin in the Woods, regardless of its legacy, is certainly its own monster.

This monsters turns against its own genre, revealing a nefarious villain that’s been here since the inception of horror films.

In Cabin in the Woods, every horror film situation ever brought to the screen has actually been created by an organization bent on spilling the blood of innocent teenagers. It’s a high-concept premise, re-framing every slasher movie enjoyed by audiences as part of some grander, carefully structured scheme.

At a pivotal point in the film, a room is revealed that contains every magical, technological, supernatural, and mutant creature trapped and ready to be deployed by said organization. It’s a dream-like sequence, with each creature imprisoned in a see-through box, rotating *around one another like glass elevators from some obscene version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Even when they’re released on the antagonists of the film, however, these are not the true monsters. The organization that detains and sets them on unsuspecting young adults isn’t, either. They’re just a complex studio carefully putting together a well-worn mousetrap of a narrative for movie-going audiences.The true villains are the underworld-dwelling elder gods that need to be fed. By satiating these sleeping gods with sexy, entertaining sacrificial lamb, the organization makes sure they don’t rise up and destroy the world.

In short, the elder gods and true villains are a pretty thinly-veiled portrait of us, the viewers of slasher fair.

We, the audiences who shell out cash repeatedly for a chance to see some poor girl get her bloody comeuppance for sneaking into the wrong isolated haunted house to make out with a guy, are the ones who support these horror movies. The audience members are the gods who demand three-dimensional human beings boiled down to flat, stereotypical characters so that their deaths feel less personal. The sacrifice of nubile women and headstrong men satisfy our ancient, throw-them-to-the-lions desires. Sometimes, if the deaths are corny and the movie is cheesy enough, we laugh.

Take, for instance, the scene in which Jules (Anna Hutchison) is the first among her friends to die. She can’t just be slaughtered by the zombie rednecks randomly; the organization has to catch her having sex with her boyfriend. Otherwise depicted as an interesting, funny person, the technicians have to drug Jules with pheromone spray, her roofie’d “dumb blond” hair dye, and put her in a fully-controlled forest make-out pad with mood lighting so that she’ll be killed in the most conventional way possible. Her death is sobering. In the grand tradition of sexually active characters being punished in horror movies, Jules has been manipulated to become an exaggerated caricature and is killed for it.

And all this means that Cabin in the Woods thinks the gods have pretty poor taste. Or at least taste that could afford to be more discerning.

When Dana (Kristen Connolly) lets loose the collection of other world serial killers on the technicians of the organization that’s killed her camping friends, the blood that flows is so over-the-top, it’s comical. “Let’s get this party started,” she says, pounding the button that releases the nightmares and splatters thick layers of blood over the walls, floor, and ceiling. It’s funny, dark, completely over-the-top, and does nothing to entertain the gods down below.

The mass slaughter of the organization’s members is the take down of the traditional horror mechanisms key to a basic slasher movie. The god-viewers expect a pattern, which this isn’t.

Dana’s remaining friends have to die. That’s what the narrative of “x amount of teenagers get trapped in x and pay the price” has lead us to expect, and that’s what we want. The story turns in on itself, though. Even Dana isn’t a traditional, pure heroine because her beliefs, by the end of the film, fall prey to human flaw, unusual for the fictional women who tend to survive being stalked by creatures of the night.

It’s not a crime for the gods to be satisfied. The people killed on-screen are, of course, fictional. It’s a crime, however, if this fictional reaping is devoid of passion or involvement. The viewers, gods or monsters, aren’t creepy because they want someone dead, they’re creepy because they don’t want any other kind of story that will make them dead. A story where uninteresting, tropic people are isolated, haunted, and killed remains with no chance of deviation. We can dream bigger.

The survivors of the massacre darkly joke that maybe it’s better if humanity is killed by the ruling gods if it means the chance of being replaced by something better. I agree. Maybe it’s all right for horror conventions to die if it means there’s a better, more complex story out there.

Cabin in the Woods is an indictment of audience apathy and a demand for better films in the genre. The gods that rise up against humans at the end of the movie don’t necessarily indicate a dark ending. They’re just viewers who hunger for something more than the film studio organizations that feed them now provides.