In considering Joss Whedon’s TV series, Dollhouse, I recognized that the Dolls could easily be interpreted as Whedon’s meta-commentary on his creation, use, and sometimes disposal of characters, particularly female ones. (I’ll never forgive him for what he did with Cordelia on Angel.) Joss Whedon is acutely aware of his position as creator and how his faithfully, or obsessively, his fan base follows his creations. After Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, he was due some navel-gazing with Dollhouse.
Yet I chose to watch the show from more of a sci-fi perspective than from the standpoint of how a creator considers his creations. I found the questions raised in Dollhouse about humanness, mortality, and technology to be far more fascinating than a guy playing with his own history as a writer/creator.
[SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ON IN]
In The Cabin in the Woods, it’s more difficult to ignore this perspective because the college-kid characters are archetypes from modern horror, which is obvious from the get-go, and spelled out explicitly by the final-hour appearance of Sigourney Weaver as The Director. They are as programmed as the Dolls from Dollhouse: Every facet of their existence has been planned out to serve a purpose, in this case, to follow the familiar formula of a teen slasher/horror film. They are cardboard creations, rigidly defined to the extent that they are even carved into the walls of the chamber dedicated to The Ancients. (I’ll get to them later.)
Whenever the cut-out characters might not adhere closely enough to their archetypes, the puppetmaster tech crew tweaks out any deviance, releasing pheromones or hillbilly zombies to force them back into something they are not. The Whore turns blonde as the story opens, and later in the cabin, The Virgin wonders what, as the newly-blonde friend dances like a stripper before the fireplace in shorty-shorts that would have made Daisy Duke blush, has happened to her buddy. Why has she become so exhibitionistically and out-of-character sexual? The Fool has a similar question about The Athlete, who suddenly seems to be dragging his knuckles and acting out the Alpha Male with a limited IQ, despite being a top scholar, who we’ve previously seen cherry-picking the best books on narrow subjects such as the economics of the Soviet Union.
The characters yearn to be more. They are pushing out of the grooves carved into the walls, independently fleshing themselves out and consequently finding themselves manipulated back into the stereotypes/archetypes that the genre requires. One of them even ends visually obliterated when he attempts to transgress the boundaries of the staged set. But what happens when characters revolt against their archetypes, and in a sense, against their creator?
Even the sole antagonist from within the boundaries of the horror zone cannot stay in character. Once his relationship with the control room has been established – as he checks in via telephone after a spot-on scene in which he plays out the proverbial role of the ominous outsider who warns and indirectly threatens the youths – Mordecai, the Biblical gatekeeper, cannot maintain his tone as the grave harbinger of doom droning on in a semi-poetic rant about sending the college kids to their terrible fates. “Am I on speakerphone?” he demands to know as the crew hold in laughter from the jabbering cliché they have partnered with. It’s one of the movie’s golden comic moments, but when he breaks character, he also breaks his archetype. He stands in contrast to the youths, who are shaking out of their stereotypes; he insists on staying with his own formulaic character, and feels insulted when the crew find him so identifiable and wearily portentous that he draws their laughter rather than their reverence. Unlike the youths, Mordecai is steadfast in holding to character and to creator even when such faithfulness is met with derision.
The college kids are not so pliable, or better said, not so fixable or tightly molded. They want to break character, and when they do, they break everything.
The Virgin and The Fool waver as they measure their fate against the fate of humankind, and when they ultimately decide to pursue their dogged but hopeless fight for survival, they consciously choose to doom all of humanity along with them. Why? As archetypes from U.S. horror films, they are in perpetual, sweating survival mode, and after The Last Girl makes a hasty, instantly regretted decision to shoot at The Fool who had saved her, she chooses not to carry out the command laid square by The Director: to ensure that The Fool die first, to appease The Ancients. Instead, The Virgin/Last Girl sits beside the daffy but crafty pothead with a shared determination to stay alive until the world literally crumbles around them and the story reaches its endpoint.
Their decision defies logic: They are doomed in either scenario, so why do they not sacrifice themselves to avoid the Monster Apocalypse rumbling up from the earth? The archetypal characters resent their roles and the expectation that they play them out according to the formula of the genre. It is youth rebellion at its most extreme and even nihilistic. They will not stick to the script, even if it means the annihilation of human civilization. From a cinematic perspective, the characters defy their creator and the genre they are built for. When they do, the film comes to an abrupt end. The power transfers from writer/director to character and results in a destruction of the narrative.
The dual structure of the film, the college kids playing out standard horror tropes on one side, and the puppetmasters – the tech team in the control room pulling the strings of torture and terror – on the other, sets creations versus creators up in a mounting battle that explodes into a delirious horror chaos when the two stories physically converge.
It’s like the graduation ceremony from the third season of Buffy, but exponentially bigger and bloodier.
The cold-hearted team in the headquarters, obsessed with technical precision and working within a limited set of choices from the genre – the artifacts for each choice lying in wait in the basement, waiting, almost competing to be chosen – correspond to the film crew, also following directives, from whom we do not entirely know until the surprise appearance of…
The Director. Sigourney Weaver. Joss Whedon/that other guy.
I suppose I am too Whedon-centric in my evaluation, since the film was co-written with and actually directed by Drew Goddard. I have to accept that he’s a part of this, despite his being a major part of the final seasons of both Buffy and Alias, which were simply painful to sit through. (He also wrote Cloverfield, which I refused to watch on my anti-shaky-cam principle, and he was deep in the shit with Lost, which I refused to watch after my Alias experience.)
Perhaps Drew Goddard can wreak less havoc outside of the expansive world of a television series. I’ve written that Firefly and Dollhouse had benefited from being canceled, preventing them from taking any extremely unfortunate story arcs or introducing characters so awful that they could single-handedly ruin entire episodes for me just by walking into frame.
And I believe Dawn and Connor would have been a more amazing couple had the two characters both been extinguished without a second thought in the showrunners’ first and only discussion of their possible existence.
As Firefly and Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods gets the advantage of limited length – here down to the running time of under two hours. I can imagine the story being stretched to a full cable season of thirteen episodes, especially with the possibilities offered by the similar operations underway in Sweden and Japan. Oh, and those tidbits from Japan with the floating girl-ghost and the squealing schoolgirls were a delight, with the sticky-sweet resolution as the best part! How fantastic it would have been to behold a collection of cross-cultural horror tropes intersect and bifurcate. But how horrible it could be if it were mishandled. Better to have clips as signifiers than pointless parallel plotlines. More importantly, a series would have drawn the project away from the genre it adheres to and then violates: the teen slasher/horror film.
We’re far better off with the story as a movie, even if I’ve already got ideas for the aforementioned Sweden, as well as other countries with their own cinematic history of horror, namely Italy and South Korea. Every audience has its expectations.
And the U.S. audience? We’ve borrowed, to be certain. The Rubik’s Cube of horror that begins its turning in the finale shows loads of familiar faces, well, not always faces – there’s one indelible image of a girl whose entire face consists of teeth; she looks like she wandered straight out of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or maybe Hellboy. Note to self: add Spain and Mexico to the list of sites to appease the Ancients.
The Ancients! Why must they be appeased with the shifting cultural references to horror? As I believe The Fool points out, why not just do a traditional sacrifice, with robes and ropes and shit? Why the elaborate scenario? Why put the characters through their paces?
It leads back to the demands of the horror genre and the cultural boundaries therein. If Sigourney Weaver is Joss Whedon, the characters are the archetypes, the horror tech team is the film crew, then who are The Ancients?
Are we The Ancients, demanding to be appeased by familiarity? Or are The Ancient the producers, the studios, demanding a risk-free, lowest-common-denominator, shock-free shocker that will guarantee returns by playing to the widest audience with the thinnest story? Are The Ancients the ones who canceled Firefly after one fucking season?
The Ancients want to see what they know, what they expect. As the giant fist of destruction burst through the earth to finish the film, I turned around (if I’m alone, I’m always in near the front row) and surveyed the audience behind me. The group I sat with was a hodgepodge. Some of the teenagers were probably expecting a standard slasher, as I doubt Joss Whedon’s name meant much to those who weren’t yet born when Buffy debuted. Seeing the movie at an 11:00 a.m. showing, however, may have brought in a more diverse audience than that of the opening Friday night. There were some scattered senior citizens and even a couple of families with older kids, and I don’t think they were there for a teen slasher flick. Like the characters in the film, they wanted more, and I hope they found it. Led by a Fool – also a choice Joss Whedon stand-in: he finds the mechanisms of horror to be obvious and returns from being written off as dead – and The Last Girl, the film slid off its rails and outside the bounds of the standard genre, incurring the wrath of The Ancients as the characters defied expectations. Or maybe The Ancients were kind of happy to be awakened.
* I thought I had walked into the wrong theater when the first scene had Richard Jenkins and that guy from The West Wing (which I’ve never seen) as office schlubs making boring small talk.
* Amy Acker and especially Fran Kranz were essentially playing variations of their roles on Dollhouse. I think Fran Kranz reaches an apex in the history of stoner performances.
* Tom Lenk (Andrew from Buffy) was more or less playing Andrew from Buffy. He had a great bit toward the end on one of the monitors holding up a sign begging for help.
* There is a little of the Dollhouse programming room and more than a little of S4 Buffy with the underground Initiative. Joss Whedon builds on himself wherever he goes; in a sense, he’s inadvertently (or probably consciously) creating his own Whedon archetypes.