You know the basic plot: five college students—always an uneven mix of genders—travel to a remote cabin in the woods during a break. Extreme bloodshed ensues. The Evil Dead? Cabin Fever? Blair Witch Project 2? This time it was The Cabin in the Woods. With the exception of Cabin Fever, all of these films have a religious origin for the horror unleashed on our protagonists, with varying degrees of seriousness. The premise of getting away into the woods is overtly sexual in nature, often with the added vice of drinking or drug use far from the eyes of watchful society. Something inevitably goes terribly wrong. Were they a tad less graphic, most of these movies could pass for morality plays in their adherence to the convention, made obvious in The Cabin in the Woods, that the virgin is the sole survivor. Of course, this is done with tongue deeply embedded in cheek. Joss Whedon, who brought us Thor and The Avengers, knows all about gods, and they are the driving motivation behind the evil lurking in this contrived cabin in an artificial wood.
In this parody of the splatter film, the blood of the archetypal teens is collected to appease a Lovecraftian pantheon of unseen “ancient ones.” These are the gods of old, hidden deep beneath the earth in a slumber, placated by the ritual sacrifice of the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin. The sacrifice is orchestrated by techie priests who wear white shirts and lab coats, in a hermetically sealed laboratory under the cabin where they are set to unleash any variety of monsters on the kids, leading to their gruesome demise. First the protagonists must “sin”—not a difficult prospect, given the arrangements—and be punished. If the ritual fails, the world ends when the “evil, giant gods” are released; echoes of Cthulhu are rife.
Horror movies offer more than scares. If done well, they provide catharsis as well—a kind of celluloid redemption. Writers and directors, however, have moved toward self-parody to distort the horror film into a kind of comedy. Even as early as The Evil Dead, the humor is evident. Joss Whedon, however, effectively wields the evil gods, just as in The Avengers. Deities are revered less for their goodness than for their sheer power. H. P. Lovecraft, an atheist, gave us the old gods. Hollywood has run with them. Instead of catharsis, viewers are left with an undefined unease—something is not quite right with this universe that has been created. Gods, whether holy or horribly profane, demand much of humanity. The response may be abject devotion or laughter. The sins remain the same as human vices of old. It is the gods that have been transformed.