Home > Movies > Meta-Slash-Feminist Filmmaking : Cabin in the Woods has Lots of Gore, Boobs and Even More Intelligence

Meta-Slash-Feminist Filmmaking : Cabin in the Woods has Lots of Gore, Boobs and Even More Intelligence

*major spoilers*

When Tarantino was conceiving the Grindhouse project his initial idea was to write and direct a quickie slasher movie as a love-letter to movies that have influenced him over the years. His obvious recent shift in ideology and love of reconceptualising genre movies to make them politically palatable meant that ultimately he couldn’t see a way to direct a slasher that wasn’t demeaning to women and ended up completely rehashing the project into something completely different, albeit still containing slasher-esque elements.

Demmit, she didn’t get nekkid.

Joss Whedon1, another horror fanatic who has also made a name for himself overturning genre conventions and is mostly famous for being the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perhaps the feminist genre icon for my generation, has since decided to tackle this seemingly impossible beast and has himself created a modern slasher movie with a meta textual element which serves to undercut and criticise traditional attitudes towards the slasher genre. Whedon is often referred to glibly as a postmodernist, but his work is generally nothing like Tarantino’s, a director who could – referring to Kill Bill, at least – more meaningfully wear that label. Cabin In the Woods is actually, mostly, a very traditional film in look and feel and very rarely does it try and undercut our expectations whilst we’re watching it. The premise is, in fact, laid bare from the very start as corporate types are shown very clearly to be manipulating a bunch of teenagers into a deserted cabin scenario and subsequently sending a bunch of slasher-monsters (redneck zombies, as it happens, though anyone who has seen the film knows it could as easily have been a merman!) to dispatch them in pretty gruesome ways. The corporation are ultimately doing this to avert the end of the world (naturally!) but they’re shown to be a sadistic unpleasant lot, running a book on what kind of monster will be dispatched and delighting in the scenes of death and misery that they’ve apparently become accustomed to over the years. In other words, they stand in for the viewer. 

The clever thing about this premise is that – unlike scream which just glibly reels off the rules of a slasher – it allows us, the viewers to watch a traditional slasher move through a lens which questions what’s happening as it occurs. Why are the teenagers always horny? Why do they do stupid things? Why can’t they ever escape? It’s because the movie has a director and he’s willing it to be that way. By uncovering this artifice throughout the movie, Whedon is also uncovering how sinister this set of rules is. As it happens, teenagers aren’t always horny. Sometimes they want to study. Sometimes they act sensibly, Sometimes they’re not virgins and that’s Ok and so on and so on. By showing a bunch of teenagers who are normal Whedon is also showing that the directors and viewers of American movies want to believe a bunch of stuff about teenagers that is blatantly stereotyping them in quite sinister ways. As neat as this artifice is, for me at least it ran the risk of creating a one-note didactic movie that stated the obvious to anyone who has ever seriously had a discussion about slasher movies. In that sense I may not be the target audience since 15 year olds who frequent the current round of slasher movies will be being drip fed the same slasher tropes as those who initially saw the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies so it’s an important message to get across in a fairly direct way. Regardless, I was still concerned from the beginning that the movie revealed its gameplan too overtly to be such a successful artistic statement as, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a successful deconstruction of teen, vampire and superhero stories. True enough, on a narrative level the movie is rarely surprising but as it progressed I realised that it was a roaring success anyway on the level of being a wonderful modern feminist text and in that it’s simply bucketloads of fun; in the way that Buffy is bucketloads of fun.

What intrigued me about the feminism of Cabin in the Woods is that it rarely seeks to be overtly feminist in the way that either Buffy or Death Proof are so desperate to be. There’s no female hero in this movie. If anything the female lead, Dana, is a fairly flawed character. She screams a bit, doesn’t always take control and in a final moment of weakness tries to murder one of the main characters. She’s gratuitously shown in her underwear for a cheap gag. Whedon does a very good job of making us feel, in some respects that we’re watching a traditional slasher. Yet, beyond the overtly highlighted meta-text the movie makes lovely little signals to highlight the patriarchal machinations that have always dominated the movie industry. One nice moment sees Holden uncovering a two-way mirror into Dana’s bedroom, giving him the opportunity to spy on Dana. He wrestles with his conscience as she unbuttons her shirt revealing her bra. We, the audience, realise that we’d kinda like him to go through with it (why else are we watching a slasher other than to see boobs right?) and just after he takes it too far, he alerts her to what’s happening and ultimately agrees to switch rooms. He’s not an arse, apparently. Following this, Dana in turn begins to spy on Holden and faces the same dilemma. Again, she refuses and covers up the mirror. What’s fascinating about this scenario is not just the fact that Holden is a “modern man” about it, but that Whedon shows Dana as sexually independent enough to need to have to make the same decision. Other examples include the patriarchal leering over Jules’ breasts. The boob shot we get is overtly gratuitous and naturally the audience enjoys it. The response of “score” from Hadley, watching on, makes us feel kinda pathetic. Finally Amy Acker’s character, Lin (would it be Joss Whedon without the presence of Amy Acker anymore??) underused perhaps, but as such she makes a wonderful feminine contrast to the two seedy guys running the corporate show. She still goes along with it, she’s still “evil” in the parameters of the movie, but she’s humane and decent with it and her presence serves as a reminder that the patriarchy are still dominating these kinds of shows and that women are quietly trying, but mostly failing, to change attitudes behind the scenes.

Amy Acker? In a Joss Whedon production. Surely not? The film’s main flaw is she doesn’t get to have a 1-1 smackdown with Summer Glau. Oh well, I can always rewatch Dollhouse…

There’s a lot to the Cabin In the Woods and heaps to like about it. I don’t even have space here (or a blu-ray to replay the movie) to delve into the glorious game-changing finale in which expectations are overhauled, the audiences bloodlust is truly satiated and Whedon entertains in ways that Whedon does best. It’s never overtly surprising as a movie but it is gloriously satisfying and certainly one of the best genre love-letter movies I’ve seen outside of Tarantino. On a purely formal level it’s a wonderful movie that’s beautifully paced, surprising and well put together. The balance between horror and comedy, so tough to get right, is pitch perfect and I found myself laughing and squealing in almost equal measures, sometimes – particularly in the climactic monster mash – at the same time. No scenario outstays its welcome and each moves seamlessly into the next. By the time Dana and Marty light up a joint to bring on the end of the world, in the film’s final scene, I was ready to light up and bring it on with them. It was a stupid, funny, poignant and intelligent moment and the perfect end to a crazy, brilliant movie.

After the relative failure of Dollhouse (A show that was sporadically brilliant, but pulled prematurely and artistically never able to stretch its legs) and the falling through of the Wonder Woman project my concerns that a Whedon project would never again be as relevant in the industry as when he created Buffy (and to an extent, Firefly/Serenity) have been laid to rest. As a fan of Whedon, feminism and genre subversion I was delighted that this movie lived up to the expectations I always have for a new Joss Whedon project. What’s more, with the critical lauding the film is getting it seems clear that this is going to be an important and defining moment in slasher movie history.

I haven’t even mentioned how fucking great Fran Kranz was.  Or the zombie arm.  Or the Merman.

1 Drew Goddard did, of course, direct this movie which was co-wrote and produced by Joss Whedon. I’m making a horrible assumption that Joss Whedon’s input into this film was pretty large. It feels like a Joss Whedon movie. I’m sure this a huge unfairness to Drew Goddard who has done some stellar work on Buffy, but I’m not going to continually write Goddard/Whedon but continue to refer to this as a “Whedon” movie. Equal credit must certainly be given to Drew Goddard for this, however.

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Categories: Movies Tags: , , , ,
  1. April 26, 2012 at 2:05 am

    Loved this review, and I plan to cite in an an upcoming blog post. I also really dug the film.

    • Alex M
      April 29, 2012 at 11:21 am

      Thank you thank you thank you 🙂 And, of course you dug the film, it’s Joss Whedon, right?

  1. April 26, 2012 at 4:48 am
  2. May 4, 2012 at 4:53 pm

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