In narcissistic industries like the movie business, there is nothing so beloved as a story about themselves. Movies-about-movies, movies-about-moviemakers, movies-within-movies, all have more examples than can be counted, on top of the documentaries. But Hollywood isn’t just a quaint little industry of yeoman writers and performers – their longevity, insularity, geographic concentration, and access to sex and money makes them a bona fide power center. Hinting ominously about the “dark underbelly” of Hollywood is approximately as old as Hollywood – the phenomenon of the “casting couch” was well known by the time it was the title of a pornographic film in 1924.
The combination of at least proximity to power and desire-to-reveal occasionally results in odd projects that hint at, shall we say, deep familiarity with the material. Eyes Wide Shut is the most prominent example, with the throwaway Al Pacino film People I Know being essentially a crappier remake. You might count Under the Silver Lake in the same category, or at a stretch the 1988 documentary They Live.
The Cabin in the Woods is an interesting movie because it attempts to convey this kind of dog whistle truth about Hollywood via a nested allegory.
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon describe Cabin as a meta spin on the horror genre – you see this from the first scene as a parody of 1960s-era NASA engineers having banal small talk is followed by jump-scare as the title rolls (they do a little irony). It turns out (spoilers abound) that their job is managing a human sacrifice to pseudo-cthulhu which coincidentally must follow horror movie trope metaphysics – killing the established archetypes (Slut, Chad, Nerd, Fool), and climaxing with the sacrifice or redemption of the virginal Final Girl.
The “self aware horror movie” is a trope itself at this point. Scream is coming up on 30 years old, and numerous successors have the villain explaining in detail the requirements of the genre. What is novel about Cabin is the idea of the cultivation of the experience by a group that is not directly participatory in the events. By necessity, even the self-aware-slasher places at least initial agency upon the slasher to drive events – those coeds aren’t going to kill themselves. In Cabin, events are driven by the control center placing victims in circumstances where they are encouraged to act a certain way (for instance, releasing pheromones to induce the obligatory Act II sex, and punishment for sex), for the benefit of the demon observing the result.
In other words, what the control center is doing is making a movie.
Viewed in this way, Cabin is less a horror film, than a film-about-filmmaking. The Slut is required to be blond to appease the demon, so the sacrifice can proceed – alternatively, she is required to do the same thing to placate the audience’s expectations (hair-and-makeup’s job isn’t to make you look good, it’s to make you look consistent). In either case, we have a sensible chuckle as we see her show up in the first scene of the main plot lampshading her dye job, and it turns out – the dye is making her dumber, not just by convention, but chemically. The Nerd discovers a one-way mirror so he can see the Virgin unbutton her blouse – of course, we see the same thing, and the control room helpfully mentions that the demon likes to see some flesh during the procedure. The control room laughs as the creepy gas station attendant phones in his status report – we laugh along with them, as he relays overwrought pseudo-prophetic invective against the youngsters.
Things continue in this way until it is clear – the demon being sacrificed to is the viewer. We are the demon being placated. This only makes sense to the extent the film is, ironically, stripped of the pretense of reality – that is, when we understand it as a film, a communication to an audience, rather than suspending our disbelief to appreciate the surface level story as if it were really happening. When the film takes the role of the demonic offering, it does not make sense to pretend to sacrifice “real” people when we know they are a fiction – they are inherently a distraction, a mere performance. No humans were harmed in the production of The Cabin in the Woods.
Except – there were. Whedon has recently had his obligatory me-too moment; he feels very badly about some of his behavior, but in the razzle-dazzle world of Hollywood entertainment, the insecure third-generation screenwriter felt he had to try to bang starlets or he just wouldn’t respect himself (as a man, or as a Hollywood personality?). His behavior, in the telling, is merely sleazy and not abusive, and his psyche appears more damaged than sociopathic (anyone familiar with his oeuvre knows that Joss Whedon’s fetish is being beaten to a bloody pulp by a 90 lb girl, who according to him is the archetypical Strong Woman based on… his mom). But let’s not pretend that Hollywood isn’t built on an altar of skulls.
So we are left with a peculiar nested symmetry. We watch a movie, Cabin, where the control center makes a movie – call it “The Sacrifice” for brevity. In The Sacrifice, the filmmakers kill social archetypes for the amusement of a demon. To make Cabin (or to establish the industry that made Cabin), Hollywood kills social archetypes (for instance the competent father, the dutiful wife, the pious believer, the innocent child, the chaste youth, etc, and once in a while some actual teens), for the amusement of the public.
This has some interesting implications as we get to the final act. The sacrifice is botched – it turns out the Fool’s dope habit made him immune to the mind control drugs encouraging the plot to run on track, and he and the Virgin discover they are meant to be offerings. As they manage to escape beneath the control room, they unleash every horror they were threatened with upon the operators, until finally they are left alone. But there is no redemption, only death – the old gods are slighted by the lack of tribute, and awaken to destroy the world. The natural suggestion is that the symmetry extends to the consequences – should Hollywood’s sacrifices fail, the viewer will awaken, and it will be the end of everything Hollywood cares about.
Goddard and Whedon, oddly enough, seem somewhere between ambivalent and hopeful about this possibility. In response to the threat of universal annihilation, the Fool has the option of a final redemptive self-sacrifice to complete the ritual, but refuses essentially out of spite, saying “maybe that’s the way it should be, if you have to kill all my friends to survive.” The Virgin agrees, saying “Humanity… it’s time to give someone else a chance.” “Giant evil gods… I wish I could have seen them [wreck their destruction].” This is bleak stuff – perhaps explained by Goddard and Whedon being solidly English WASPs rather than a more traditional Hollywood background, and perhaps not as invested in the success of their project. A giant demonic hand thrusts out of the earth, ending both Cabin and The Sacrifice, and sending the audience for both on their way.
With what we know of Hollywood, should we hope for anything less?