Sacrifice Gets Meta in The Cabin in the Woods

Within the first fifteen minutes of The Cabin in the Woods, a bird flies into a force field. Clearly, this isn’t your typical teen slasher movie. Here, the cult, as it were, has developed into a full-blown global conspiracy. Allusions are made to its crude beginnings. “Remember when you could just throw a girl in a volcano?” asks Bradley Whitford’s snarky control room engineer.

He and his colleague (Richard Jenkins) help orchestrate an elaborate, tech-enabled, ritual sacrifice to appease the Ancient Ones: giant movie gods who sleep below ground and are roused to anger when the horror films staged in their honor don’t adhere to genre convention. These two characters are essentially stand-ins for director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon, whereas the Ancient Ones represent the audience.

Like Midsommar and Hereditary, which received a C+ and D+ CinemaScore, respectively, The Cabin in the Woods wasn’t what some filmgoers were expecting on opening night. While it holds a 91% Tomatometer rating, it earned a “C” CinemaScore overall. Women notably gave it a D+.

Perhaps they didn’t take kindly to its all-knowing geek male perspective or its self-aware signaling of “virgin” and “whore” archetypes. The scene where the boys yuk it up over the speaker phone does verge on being self-indulgent in terms of its irreverent wit. In this movie, it’s the pot-headed, fifth-wheel geek who reappears at a crucial moment to save the final girl … only for her to turn around and show her appreciation by pulling a gun on him at the end. He’s the one who first figures out that he and his friends are at the mercy of “puppeteers” when they unwittingly enter a horror movie set-up.

At this point, cabin-in-the-woods movies form their own sub-genre of horror. While The Cabin in the Woods might be more indebted to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, it does bear some structural similarities to The Wicker Man. Here again, our heroes venture to a secluded location, where they find themselves caught up in a broader human sacrifice scheme. This time, the Virgin and Fool aspects of Sergeant Howie are broken down into two separate characters. We also meet a blonde Whore, a letterman-jacketed Athlete, and a sometimes-bespectacled Scholar.

The catch is that none of these characters fits their trusty, two-dimensional labels. The Athlete, played by Chris Hemsworth, is actually a sociology major who is on full academic scholarship. He has to be manipulated into alpha-male behavior from the control room. Pheremone mists and subliminal whispers help rig the game against him and the other unknowing players.

This is one of the things The Cabin in the Woods addresses: how people in cheap horror flicks act out-of-character and do things no sensible person ever would, in order to feed the monster (sometimes literally) and keep the entertainment ritual going. It’s all part of the movie’s meta-commentary, which takes the genre fan on an elevator ride for the ages and builds to a big, hell-on-earth finish. Along the way, there are some fun nods to J-horror and other sub-genres, and through it all, there’s an underlying morality about free will that makes you stop and think before some zombie redneck torturer pops up again with a bear trap to yank you back into the action.

Thanks to a sudden werewolf attack, the Virgin has time to rethink her decision to kill the Fool in The Cabin in the Woods. Rather than gun down her friend, the last intended sacrifice victim, she goes along with his decision to let the whole world die. Humanity has had its chance; maybe it doesn’t deserve to live. (Yet one can’t help but think, don’t they have families back home, people they care about?)

By choosing the immediate and personal over the faceless and universal, they force a higher body count and the time-honored sacrifice ritual reaches new heights of collateral damage. If you still need a killer cult fix after this movie, Goddard employed a proper one, led by Hemsworth, in his 2018 sophomore effort, Bad Times at the El Royale.

The Hitman Crowned Cultist in Kill List

So much of horror involves dark forces invading safe spaces: haunting the house, making suburbia scary. In this respect, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List mirrors Hereditary, insofar as it sees a spouse and parent allow a cult to invade his domestic sphere. The difference here is that it’s the husband and father and he happens to be a contract killer.

Jay (Neil Maskell) is one brutish half of a two-hitman team. He and his partner, Gal (Michael Smiley), amble through hallways like schlubby British versions of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. Unbeknownst to Jay, the cult has already infiltrated his house when he’s hosting a dinner party and Gal’s new girlfriend excuses herself to go etch arcane symbols on the back of the bathroom mirror.

She also steals a tissue with his blood on it. That’s never a good sign. Nor is it a good sign when a new client suddenly slashes Jay’s palm at a hotel sitdown, sealing their contract for three kills with more of his blood. The first two names on Jay and Gal’s kill list — a priest and a snuff film “librarian” — weirdly thank Jay, even as he shoots and hammers them into oblivion like the nasty piece of work he is.

Throughout its 95-minute running time, Kill List seeds in clues like this that there’s more going on than meets the eye; but I have to confess that the first time I saw it, its Wicker Man turn at the end seemed opaque, almost shoehorned in. Ambient music laced with unsettling whistles and vocal effects helps create an air of dread while the movie goes through its paces as a pseudo-realistic hitman drama. If you go back and rewatch it, however, its jagged, Faustian spine becomes more visible.

An ex-soldier traumatized by a mission in Kiev, Jay’s life is already beset by financial problems and marital discord when he makes his deal with the devil. Like the cultists of Summerisle, he’s not above antagonizing the occasional Christian, either. Ben Crompton (Dolorous Edd on Game of Thrones) cameos as the leader of a table full of them. His caterwauling acoustic guitar rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” leads to a confrontation with Jay in the hotel dining room. “God loves you,” he says, to which Jay menacingly replies, “Tell God from me that if you’re the type of people he hangs about with, stay out of my way.”

As Jay unravels and becomes more violent, we get the sense that the cult is subtly remaking his life in its image. It switches out one of its members for his regular doctor, a la Rosemary’s Baby, and eventually it manages to put a knife in his hand and have him direct his homicidal aggression at his own family. The film culminates in Jay’s fight to the death with a “hunchback,” the disguised form of his son strapped to his wife’s back.

Chased through claustrophobic tunnels and surrounded by twig-faced figures that we’ve heard squeal like demons, the unrepentant killer dances shirtless in the firelit wilderness of night. By now, Jay has so completely lost his grip that he lacks the ability to discern family members from foes, until it’s too late and he’s already stabbed them repeatedly. Their bodies join the pile of sacrificial loved ones from Aster’s films, and what’s left is a twisted menagerie of unsuspecting cult recruits.

Like Dani in Midsommar, Jay is indeed left standing as part of the cult at the end. Whereas she smiles, liberated from her dependence on an emotionally unavailable boyfriend, he can only look on in stupefaction as his wife dies with a laugh, perhaps because she, too, is now liberated from their dysfunctional marriage. Wicker masks and flaming torches serve as visual callbacks to The Wicker Man.

The thread that binds several of these post-Wicker Man films is how they shift guilt onto their main characters, making them complicit in other people’s deaths. It’s horrifying enough to be culpable for one’s own demise. It’s even more horrifying to victimize someone close to you.

Pages: Previous page 1 2 3

Cool Posts From Around the Web: