So I saw this film. Suffice it to say it left an impression. If this is too in-depthy, my apologies.
As storyteller Joss Whedon is oft concerned to explore the less than wonderful consequences of doing bad things for the greater good. This is especially clear in the film Serenity and most recently in Cabin in the Woods.
Cabin is about storytelling, the how and the why of it. It takes a genre with particular rules and uses them to explain not only the importance of storytelling, but also why the rules exist. Drew Goddard and Whedon grounded these rules in the source of myth and ritual. Yet it works on several levels. One on level it is what it is, a horror story using the usual tropes of the genre to up-end viewer expectations by ultra-fulfilling them. Want blood – I’ll give you blood. Want Japanese Ghost Thriller or Redneck Zombies? Why not have ‘em both and more besides. Expectations fulfilled. Horror is horrible. What’s more is this familiarity is heightened by the film’s reflexivity, because characters in this story within a story explain this as it happens, from ‘inside’ events through the perceptions character Marty (my favourite) and the actions of the others as well as through ‘outside’ events with the Scientists who explain such things as the function of the Scary Guy at the Petrol Station. That Mordecai is exactly what one expects is deliberate on the part of the writers and the story within the story. The fact he mocked for this is hilarious, and makes it more poignant that his role of Doomsayer is justified and he is ultimately right about everything. He is a portent for the kids in the woods and for everyone else he addresses. Just is, as in every horror film, no one listens. Oh the humanity.
So Cabin’s about how audiences are too familiar with genre. The heroes know so much because the audience knows so much about horror. The characters are thus set up to subvert their stereotypes and then are manipulated into fulfilling them and the audience sees this as the Scientists do. In this respect there are cute gags and technology to subvert the character’s awareness that also help the audience accept why the heroes do what they do, again, all in an overt Deus Ex kinda way. Our heroes then, become the victims who are sacrificed in the way the story and the Scientists require.
The audience sees the story through the eyes of these unwitting heroes and through the eyes of the Scientists, who are stand-ins for the Writers Themselves. The Scientists set up a controlled ritual, using lesser evils and the choices of the heroes to placate The Really Big Evil. The story (and the genre) say people must die, and since the dawn of time people have always died. Once it was for real, humans were sacrificed. Then it became stories, retold, and the five chosen ones were sent into the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. In this way Cabin becomes a film about how Storytellers replaced the role of the High Priests, sacrificing their beloved characters in order to placate the forces of – well in these modern times, market economics and audience expectation (these forces are linked). But we, the audience, can’t judge them as it is our need that drives the stories. The Audience is at once potential victims and the Big Evil, ever hungry for more. No wonder writers have nightmares.
Writers then, are demigods, serving masters greater than themselves but this film posits that in the end, as much as they control everything, they to are mere subjects.
They have to choose what happens in the cellar, yeah, we write the game as much as we have to but in the end, if they don’t transgress they can’t be punished.
In this case it is literal, the Scientists who control the game using their lesser evils have also transgressed, they have made their sacred duties a game, an entertainment, instead of solemn ritual. And in fact, Whedon himself has made this clear:
Our Scientists then, furthermore, don’t gamble on the will of our heroes. Their enterprise and decisions work to subvert the genre, and the audience’s hopes are lifted at their survival against the odds so stacked against them, and our own expectations of the genre. (We saw Wolf Creek, we understand down endings).
So yes, the heroes defeat the Scientist/Writers, but their decisions about their survival leave the audience in a darker nightmare even than Wolf Creek (for instance). Their decisions mean a refusal to complete the expected rituals… this time the Minotaur will not get what it needs. And that is worse than everything they’ve experienced before, and worse for the entire world. Their actions reveal that the story, and in fact every horror story and mythic nightmare as a ritual or actual and real does a greater good, by serving a greater evil. Our heroes, much like Capt Malcolm in Serenity, say they as he did, that they (mostly) do not hold to this. That attempting such bad is too high a price to pay. But their answer means Everyone Pays. And that is where we are left. The Scientists are responsible, but remember, they stand as the writers of the story, which was written for our entertainment, and us much as we were entertained, we are made culpable.
Now that *is* a down ending.