"‘The Cabin in the Woods’ and the Bureaucracy—and Beauty—of Evil"
It’s difficult to talk about The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s much-delayed, highly mysterious horror without spoiling it altogether. And while I’m not the world’s most spoiler-averse person, I am going to hold off on discussing the film in any specific detail, though this post will affirm that certain elements are present in the movie, until it’s in theaters, and I’ll revisit it once folks have had a chance to see it. This post is spoiler-safe if you are only concerned about specific plot points. But if you don’t want to know anything about the movie whatsoever, hold off.
In very general terms, it turns out I was right that the movie is about the bureaucracy of evil. And in a lesser way, it’s a sustained exploration of another major theme in Whedon’s work: the beauty in evil.
Over the course of Whedon’s career, he’s shifted from writing purely about the people who escape from bureaucracies and started to spend more time on the people who participate in running organizations, some of whom commit significant evil in the course of their work. We see the Watchers largely from Buffy’s perspective, and the ones who are allowed to have stand-alone stories, and whose perspectives and growth we have access to, are apostates. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is fired for incomepetence, and Rupert Giles defies the council before he is dismissed. Maggie Walsh is murdered as a direct result of her manipulation of the Initiative beyond its original parameters. Riley’s struggles against the Initiative, first as a reformer and then a flawed revolutionary, are as important an aspect of his character arc as his relationship with Buffy. He finds peace when he finds a role that suits him within the government, and that new organization becomes not just the source of his job, and his family. In Firefly and Serenity, we see the same pattern again: we see the agents of the Alliance through River Tam’s memories, or through their encounters with the crew of the ship. And the Operative is redeemed when he accepts the truth about the creation of the Reavers and calls off the agents of the Alliance.
Dollhouse, however, spends substantially more time with the agents of both the U.S. government and the Rossum Corporation, tracing the damage that they do to other people and that participation in the system does to them as well. Corporations, it seems, are self-replicating machines. And fully half of The Cabin in the Woods is spent with and told from the perspective of the movie’s bureaucrats. They get to be just as quippy as the average teenage Whedon hero or heroine, and they get to be tragic in a way that’s compromised and adult.
That’s not the only way the movie feels like it’s different in degree, if not in kind, from Whedon’s past work. It’s also got some of the best monster design in his ouvre. Whedon’s always been very good at creating novel monsters—the Mayor’s demonic form, the gods breaking through from Glory’s ritual. But often, he creates unease by implanting monstrous behavior and worldviews in extremely beautiful human forms. We’re disturbed by seeing David Boreanaz, James Marsters, or Clare Kramer behave in ways that are horrifying particularly because we’re taught to equate physical beauty with goodness. The monsters in Cabin in the Woods can, at times, be much more foreign than that. The loveliness in some of that moster design is impressive, an inverse aesthetic subversion. I found some of the monsters genuinely moving. And for someone who suffers from unusually bad nightmares and has low tolerance for horror, that’s saying something.