It’s entirely possible that Drew Goddard isn’t being completely honest when he says, “We certainly didn’t set out to make a meta movie.” He’s talking about The Cabin in the Woods, the Joss Whedon-produced film that he directed. It premiered to enthusiastic audiences at SXSW this year.
It’s also one of the most meta movies the horror genre has ever seen. Unfortunately, I can’t explain exactly why, because I’m under a strict no-spoilers pledge demanded by Whedon. But I can tell you that the first question in the Q&A following the world premiere was, “How does it feel to have made the last horror film in history?” Two days later at the roundtable, a journalist called the film the cinematic equivalent of finishing the song, throwing down the mic, and walking off stage. (Whedon politely asked the writer if he could try to refrain from being more clever than Whedon and Goddard themselves.)
But Goddard is having none of it. “We set out to make a horror movie,” he insists. “We love horror. We didn’t write this for a studio, we just sat down and wrote whatever the fuck we wanted to write. That was how we wanted to approach this. Because we love the genre so much and are such enthusiasts for it, those things started to come out in the course of the story. But I think we were much more interested in not so much deconstructing the genre but asking the questions that the genre itself suggests.”
Some of those questions have to do with how the genre deals with youth. It taps into a deep antipathy we feel toward youth and energy. “There’s something interesting to be about the destruction of youth that is at the heart of most horror stories,” Goddard says. “Why do we feel the need to sort of build these kids up and tear them down? There’s something about youth that as we get older we feel the need to marginalize them, put them in boxes and then destroy them.”
The genre seems to tap into the phenomenon of older generations being simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the youthful spirit. “Maybe they represent our own mortality,” offers Goddard. “The youthful spirit may be the spirit of life and as we get further away from it we both miss it and resent it.”
Heady stuff for a guy who, in the end, made a scary movie. But the Austin audiences certainly thought the film worked on all levels. The response during and after the screenings were all a director could hope for. “Oh my gosh,” gushes Goddard. “We suspected SXSW would be our dream audience and our suspicions proved correct. I mean, that was just a joy, a joy to see the audience. It was also a very savvy audience and I wasn’t expecting that. You know, you worry whether you’ve made everything clear and a lot of times the audience doesn’t get it. But on this movie people were kind of ahead of it, which I think made it even better. You could anticipate what was about to happen and you could feel that energy start to course through the audience: ‘Oh something bad’s about to happen.’ It was definitely fun to see.”
Which leads, in turn, to another remarkable aspect of The Cabin in the Woods—in an industry that seems to be inexorably marching toward movies being viewed on laptops or, at best, on the living room television, it’s a movie that needs the community of the audience to be truly appreciated. “We love movies and we wanted to design a movie that’s fun for that type of communal atmosphere,” Goddard agrees. “As much as it’s about movies it’s about audiences, that collective act of watching a horror movie. We wanted to make it fun; we wanted to make a group experience fun. I don’t feel like enough people are doing that anymore. We love movies, sitting next to people, bringing your date to the movie, grabbing on and laughing. That’s fun, and it’s fun to get the chance to do that.”
A great amount of that sense of fun comes from two brilliant character actors, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. They are the first characters we meet, and they set the tone, really, for the whole film. “Richard and Bradley,” says Goddard, “were just our dream cast for these parts. We were talking about that role and I said ‘My dream person for this role is Richard Jenkins.’ And the other people in the room were like, ‘Well ,he just got nominated for an Academy Award for The Visitor, and this might not be exactly what he wants for a next step after his Oscar nomination.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I understand that but can’t we just send it to him? The worst thing he can say is no.’ ‘Alright fine, send it to Richard.’ We sent it to him on a Friday. Six a.m., the phone rings, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m in. I love this.’ I said, ‘Do you have any notes?’ ‘No, I don’t have any notes. I love what you guys are trying to do. I want all of this.’”
Surprisingly given that response, Jenkins is not an afficianado of the genre. “He’s never done one at all,” says Goddard. “He just got it. He got that we were different, and he just got so excited about it and God bless him, the person who stayed latest at the after party was Richard Jenkins. That’s how he was on set, too. Always giving you an extra take, always sticking around wanting to see the fun stuff. He’s just a joy to work with. The day we wrapped Richard Jenkins on this project I started to cry. I knew I was going to miss him so much.”
It’s not your father’s horror movie. It’s not for everyone. But it’s exactly the film Goddard and Whedon envisioned. “The nice thing about this movie,” Goddard muses, “is that we got to do exactly what we wanted to, and that included making some choices that might seem a little different. And you know, for us, making this movie, because of what we were talking about earlier, the themes that are in play—and the themes that are not just about a horror story in particular but who we are as a people and what this all suggests about ourselves—it allowed us to go to a more mythological place and explore that community. It felt so important for us to do that because if we didn’t, that’s how these things become trite. That’s how these things become, ‘Oh I get it. That’s a simple movie.’ We never wanted to make a simple movie. We wanted to explore complicated themes.”
It may not be the last horror film ever. But it raises the bar for what a horror film can be.