Normally I wouldn’t do this, but Cabin in the Woods relies so much on the element of surprise, that you should not read this post if you haven’t seen it and care about being spoiled on it.
As I wrote after seeing the movie at SXSW, Cabin in the Woods, I wrote that the movie is a fantastic extension of Joss Whedon’s long-running interests in the bureaucracy of evil and the beauty of the monstrous. The work that Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are given to do as the control room operators of the Apocalypse, the torture pornographers who happen to be humanity’s saviors, is just a delightful, funny, sensitive use of both men. And the gorgeousness of Whedon and Goddard’s monsters is something to behold — I found myself unexpectedly moved by the man with the gears embedded in his skull and the ballerina dentata that Dana and Marty encounter in the elevator.
But I was disappointed by one element of the movie, which felt to me like a bit of a regression from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the treatment of Jules, the blonde sexpot who is the first of the characters to get killed by the murderous hillbillies the friends unwittingly unleashed in the basement. Whedon told Vulture that he sees Jules’ character as an attempt to answer some of the same questions as Buffy was:
Cabin isn’t overtly a feminist work necessarily, but it is built on the same question that built Buffy the Vampire Slayer: If you have a blonde who is perfectly nice and funny, why are you intent on her coming to a bad end? What is the purpose of the final girl, as she’s called? All these people, all the characters behave a certain way, and there is a progression of what they have to do, to allow themselves to be written off as sex fiends or druggies or bullies or complete idiots in the face of true danger, and you just don’t get in the way of that. It’s about being stereotypes versus fleshed-out people. There was never a question — the nudity had to happen, because the movie is about objectification and identification and that’s what horror is about. Drew and I were not unhappy if the hot blonde took off her shirt — hey, we thought it was a good decision! — but mixing titillation and mutilation started to become a very weird confluence. It’s not the same kind of pleasure for us. Those are two separate things. But that’s the foundation of what we knew was part of the film, and we were the most timid filmmakers ever about it.
But Jules’ character is the one that’s least-played with, the least-subverted, and the one we see suffer the longest. We learn that Dana isn’t really a virgin — she’s just the best the people orchestrating the sacrifice have to work with. Curt, the giant jock, turns out to be a pre-med smarty. Stoner Marty’s protected from the malign influences of the people manipulating them because the pot he’s smoking ends up inoculating him to the pheromones they’re pumping into the cabin, and he’s the one who figures out how to get them into the complex. (Holden doesn’t get much of a fair shake either, and it’s too bad that both of the characters of color in the movie are somewhat quiet and detached). But we don’t get a clear debunking of whatever stereotypes we’re supposed to have about Jules. Clearly, she’s being influenced by the chemicals, the heightened moonlight. But we don’t know what her base behavior is like, whether she and Curt were already sleeping together (though I assumed so) before the trip, why her actions here are surprising — when we meet her, after all, she’s bugging Dana to be less of a prude.
I asked Whedon about this at South By Southwest, where he seemed kind of irritated by the question, telling me that “I don’t think Jules comes off as dumb…We did want to be making that movie at the same time that we were talking about that movie and making images that were sexual and sometimes exploitive.” (After that line drew a lot of applause, he noted “I don’t think I’ve ever been applauded for exploitation before.”) I agree with Whedon that those things aren’t incompatible. And a movie is always going to offer less time to develop its characters and debunk simple tropes than a television show us. But I was sorry there wasn’t a little more detail in there, something that would have heightened the sense that even if, in the balance, the world isn’t worth saving, there’s some real pain in the loss. If anything, Cabin in the Woods feels like it’s coming from Willow before Xander talks her down at the end of Buffy season six, rather than Buffy herself.
A couple of folks have written in to point out that I switched Jules and Curt’s majors — she’s pre-med, he’s sociology. I regret the error, but was left with the same impression. Curt’s major is cited in a moment to show the disjunct between his behavior and his true self. That disconnect never felt fleshed out for Jules: both the sexy dance and the wolf makeouts read to me like plausible weekend away showing off, not wildly aberrant, since I had no sense at all of her prior personality. Maybe it’s just a consequence of her being first to go.