Cabin in the Woods is a good time. It knows when to be scary, when to crack a joke, and gives us characters that we’d actually like to see make it out of the film alive. Which is why the ending was so surprising to me. It effectively cuts off the “get money, bitch” mentality of Hollywood because there really can’t be a sequel when the world has ended. You don’t get much more final than that. Kudos to the film for giving us an ending that’s not like every other horror film that spawns half a dozen poorly-crafted sequels. How did we get to this point? Simple answer: the scripting allows the characters to have more autonomy rather than fit into their preconceived roles.
Everything starts out normal enough, save for Dana standing in front of an open window in her underwear; however, we soon get hints that we’re in for something outside of normal horror movie fare. The usual stereotypes in horror films are present: stoner Marty (the fool), vampy Jules (the whore), jock Curt (the athlete), new kid Holden (the scholar), and good girl Dana (the virgin). However, we see that Marty really has no interest in sex; Jules is pre-med, a departure for the party-girl type; Curt recommends books to Dana that will help her in her courses, making him more than the brainless jock; Holden politely informs Dana that her mirror is two-way, rendering him to be more than just the bad boy; Dana slept with her professor and is nursing a broken heart, making her far less innocent than we traditionally get our good girl archetypes. We’re already off to a different start by the time that the action begins thanks to characters that simultaneously fit their parts and break out of our notions of who they should be. This paves the way for them to begin exercising the faculties of free will throughout the film.
|More than meets the eye here on a few different levels.|
Free will does not come without manipulation, though it does seem to triumph over the adversity that gets placed in front of its wielders. Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) remind the audience that the game they’re playing is stacked, but the participants all retain a manner of choice; as Hadley tells a colleague, “If they don’t transgress, they can’t be punished.” The gang has to make the poor decisions in order to mertit the punishment, and they’re prompted to do so by the team at the Facility. However, it’s interesting to point out that this stacked game isn’t as successful across the board, demonstrating the power of free will. Every other branch has beaten the system by the time that we arrive at our gang’s adventure, proving that it’s not as rigged as the Facility wants you to believe. At the midway point, we see the school children in Japan defeating the ritual, causing an exasperated Sitterson to yell, “How hard is it to kill 9-year-olds?” This system can fail because it is not fool-proof, and in fact, it is failing because every other attempt at the ritual has been beaten. That’s why this one has to succeed: because at the end of the day, the participants can always beat the game and thereby end the world. The Facility can manipulate through hair dyes and marijuana all it likes, but at the end of the day, the power to transgress, and well as the power to defeat the system, lies within the participants. This free will can be a source of triumph, but also brings with it pain: when Marty and Dana decide to go down to the facility, Dana has the realization that “[t]hey made us choose how we die.” She starts screaming at this realization in the face of one of the choices of ritualistic death safely contained in front of her. The fact that she unknowingly made this decision angers her, evoking a type of lack-of-consent rage.
|It’s more so her being goaded into making a choice that pisses her off.|
Once this manipulation has been exposed, Marty and Dana rail against it with full force to bring us to an ending we didn’t quite expect. They bring the chaos variable by unleashing the instruments of death upon the Facility. We see pools of blood and carnage. Instead of being the controllers of fate, the Facility employees are now placed into the role of unwilling sacrifice, and they don’t like it at all. This is a direct reaction to Marty and Dana refusing to accept their roles in the salvation of the human race. They refuse to be told that they will pick how they die, and they will not die quietly. They do not have all of the information just yet, but still they fight for their lives because they feel that their lives matter. It is when the Director (Sigourney Weaver, who I absolutely adored in this type of corporate, Weyland-esque role) explains that they have to die in a particular order to prevent the Ancient Ones from awakening and destroying humanity that Dana sees the larger picture. The Director attempts to reinforce a type of natural order within the structure of the ritual: there is no right or wrong, there is only survival, and Marty and Dana must accept their roles in this process because much larger stakes are at hand. “You can die with them, ” the Director tells them, “or you can die for them.” Marty continues to fight against it, while Dana initially accepts it. It is when she nearly dies in a werewolf attack that her death is thrown into stark contrast, and she can’t accept the notion of killing Marty. Rather than accept their deaths in the ritual, Dana and Marty are more content to let the entire world burn with them. Dana views her near-murder of Marty as a type of weakness when she confesses, “I probably would have [killed you].” Murder of her friend was something she had to overcome, even for the greater good. In the end, Dana chose to save her friend at the cost of damning the human race to destruction. Think about that for a moment: she could not psychologically accept the killing of her friend and let everyone else on the planet die because she didn’t want that on her conscience. Flawed as it was to the rest of the human race, that was her choice, and the filmmakers decided to let her have this voice. In this respect, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard showed her far more respect than merely letting Dana live: they allowed her to the freedom to decide her course of action, which is far more autonomy than our horror films give our characters. There’s no dramatic saving of the human race that we as the audience are typically treated to, and no heroic actions – merely two traumatized college kids with only minutes to go before it all goes to hell. The choice is theirs, and it’s refreshing in a sense because it’s a direction not many films would take.
|I smell sequ– oh, wait, no, I don’t. Sorry.|
Curiously, the film ends with a reflection of hope and an element of fun against the backdrop of impending doom. Marty and Dana acknowledge that the world is ending, and that maybe it’s for the best: “It’s time to give someone else a chance.” It’s ambiguous, sure, but there’s still the very human element of hope. In refusing to die on someone else’s terms and submit to the predefined stereotypes, they bring down the entire system. In a sense, they’re asserting that their lives matter. They are refusing to be the victims, even if it means lights-out for the whole human race. And we as an audience cheer for this. We cheer for them that they made it through to the end. We cheer because the corrupt system is gone. We cheer because someone finally had the guts to explore that maybe the human race isn’t so wonderful and might just need a reboot. We cheer because someone finally had the balls to pull the trigger. There may not be a sequel, but I’ll gladly watch this one over again for this move.