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Early marketing for Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods” relished the tease, and the film’s trailers giddily laid out all manner of horror movie tropes (from characters to setting, and every tobacco-spitting redneck and creepy cabin in between) while also hinting that much more was at stake than initially met the eye. “You think you know the story,” the film’s first trailer and official poster winked at potential viewers, while piling on horror movie cliche on top of horror movie cliche (did we mention that creepy cabin?).
The implication, of course, was that you didn’t, and that there was a deep secret at the heart of the film. The film itself pulls no such tricks, instead opening with what might otherwise, given all that winking marketing, seem like the big reveal: there’s someone (well, something) pulling all the strings. In an increasingly chaotic world, that twist speaks to not just characters unwittingly trapped in a world not of their own design or desire, but real people wondering just how the heck they can survive an existence that’s ruled by powers beyond their control.
Written by Joss Whedon, “The Cabin in the Woods” sounds fatalistic on its face — this isn’t just a world in which its characters can’t win, but one in which they (mostly) don’t even know the rules that are dictating outcomes — but as it progresses, a pair of characters hellbent on changing their fate manage to disrupt the entire system. Spoiler: That doesn’t necessarily mean that the film has a happy ending, but it does offer one that at least changes the power dynamic forever.
The film is indeed heavy with genre tropes, but that’s all part of its whipsmart design. Soon enough, the film reveals what it’s really about: a centuries-old ritual designed to keep “The Ancient Ones” appeased through bloody, horrible death. Over the years, “The Ritual” has evolved from the simple (one of its characters references how easy it used to be, back when they could just toss a girl into a volcano and call it a day) to the complex, demanding annual worldwide participation by a collection of smaller organizations that have tailored their own rituals to local customs.
Each ritual, however, is steeped in horror movie lore (think about this: what came first, the movies or the tropes?) and built on its own complicated rules system. The American ritual is all about slasher film tropes, all the way down to the kind of people who are unwillingly picked to participate (the athlete, the whore, the virgin, etc.). If enough of them die in the right way and in the right order, the world is saved for another year.
The audience is aware of what’s happening from the jump, as the film opens with wonks from “The Organization” (played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) blithely preparing for this year’s ritual, which involves seemingly cookie-cutter characters, including Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz), the so-called “virgin” and “fool.” Dana and Marty and their pals, of course, have zero idea what’s actually happening, and are mostly concerned with surviving what seems like a very, very bad weekend at a creepy cabin. Until, of course, they’re exposed to the truth, in all its grotesque glory.
“The Cabin in the Woods” hints at a much bigger cinematic world, from glimpses of the “endless” variety of monsters the American contingent is able to deploy in service to torturing their victims (never forget the key differences between something as simple as “zombies” and their much more precise brethren, “zombie redneck torture family”) to brief flashes at what is happening with the other rituals (each, it seems, tailored to local tastes). And yet its ending, in which Dana and Marty essentially destroy The Organization from the inside out, leading to both the end of the world as we know it and their last acts of free will, seems like the kind of conclusion that doesn’t require a followup.
Yes, the world ends (maybe?), a horrifying conclusion that comes with the weird realization that fate (and meticulous evil planning) can still be subverted by people willing to make some hard choices. It’s happy! And for us viewers, supposedly not caught in a terrible simulation built by evil ancient beings and the wimps that support them as a career path, it’s sort of inspiring. Is it time to see more of that oddly uplifting message of self-determination against terrible odds? Oh, is it ever.
In 2018, Goddard told CinemaBlend that, while some ideas for a followup had been bandied about, there were no plans to make a sequel to the film. At the time, the director said, “I don’t need to just go make a sequel for the sake of making a sequel. The only way we could do it is if we could do it justice, and the truth is, it’s a hard one to do justice to. Every version of continuing the story undercuts the ending that we had in ‘Cabin,’ and I just feel like that continues to be the perfect ending for that movie and I never want to undercut it.”
But even Goddard hedged a bit, later telling Fandango, “I never say never, either. I’ve learned, tomorrow, that a bolt of lightning could strike and you could think of an idea that does the first one justice, but I haven’t quite had that idea yet, I haven’t had the idea yet that makes me go, ‘Oh, we have to drop everything and do that now.'”
A world in which even the best of people are at the mercy of organized goons who work in service to a death cult and do so through increasingly outlandish schemes and convoluted string-pulling? These days, that sure sounds familiar, the kind of story that all but begs for an update with even the briefest hints of hope — a chance to cut those strings, at least one more time.