I'm yet the latest to really, really enjoy The Cabin in the Woods, which Whedon and Goddard wrote and Goddard (who wrote the monster film Cloverfield) directed. This film messed with me, in a way I support and even hoped for: I deliberately avoided learning most everything about it, just knowing it was, in a way, a horror film about why we watch horror films. (It also has an opening scene that likely made lots of viewers wonder for a few minutes "Are we in the right screening room?" Some might not have been sure until the words THE CABIN IN THE WOODS filled the screen in giant letters.)
I'm not a horror hound, not a devoted fan who can cite deep examples of great horror films. I've experienced some; loved some of them, liked others, disliked some others, avoided a lot of films I figured would rub me the wrong way. (Easy examples: I love Night of the Living Dead and the film version of The Silence of the Lambs, but what little I've seen of the Friday the 13th films series bugs and annoys me. At least I have friends like yendi who can evaluate what's good in that series and what's crap in that series.) Whedon and Goddard, however, are. They know their shit. The Cabin in the Woods is basically their thesis: Why do we need horror? The film is efficient, scary, and often hilarious at giving their answer to this, all in a brisk and refreshing 95 minutes. 95 increasingly R-rated minutes.
Joss Whedon hasn't done R-rated since 1997's Alien: Resurrection*. That's the same year he brought Buffy the Vampire Slayer to television, which by design can mostly be PG to PG-13 in content and execution. The bulk of Whedon's work in that 15 years has been for TV -- seven seasons of Buffy, five of Angel, half a season of Firefly, and two seasons of Dollhouse. His movies, comic book work and web serial Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog haven't strayed near R-rated territory, either; his big-budget superhero film The Avengers definitely won't. But! He does have an R-rated mind. Usually, he hints at that; here, he puts it front and center, as he and Goddard did not want to pull punches. Every Friday the 13th movie has been R-rated, and as some of The Cabin in the Woods is in the spirit of that series -- but, in my opinion, far more clever overall -- this needed an R rating, too.
Sometimes it needed to be gratuitously R-rated.
That's how a lot of the last half-hour is, a section I especially don't want to spoil. (Notice how I've said almost nothing about what actually happens? Like a lot of people admiring this movie, I want to reveal as little about its plot as possible. Except that yes, you ARE in the right screening room.) I just want to say that that last half-hour is CRAZY. But JUSTIFIED crazy. Almost JOYOUSLY crazy. It also reminded me of how often we can laugh at the really horrific or gross. Stephen King has said that when he reads stories to people, they tend to chuckle or laugh at even the really horrific or gross parts. I know that King's famously gross short story "Survivor Type**," one he had trouble selling because people thought it too gross, made me laugh out loud more than once. As did this film.
Whedon's difficult, polarizing creation Dollhouse could be a warning example: a project based on an idea that likely needed an R-rated treatment, not the PG-13-at-most of TV. (And I like Bobby Roberts's thought from this podcast of The Cort and Fatboy Show, in the 39th minute, that Dollhouse needed at most two-and-a-half-hours of story, not two TV seasons.) The sex and sexuality implied in the Dollhouse concept -- Whedon, with his R-rated mind, knows what people could do, for good or ill, with the reprogrammable attractive people known as the "dolls" -- went beyond what American broadcast TV is willing to show or suggest. Many of the implications could not be dealt with in an honest way due to network orders and network skittishness; Whedon and his Dollhouse writing team convey some details of that here. It made it harder for Dollhouse to be about anything, so something about its evolution as a story was forced. Not the fate Cabin in the Woods had, thank goodness.
Here's to the R rating being used for good. And perhaps the eventual DVD of The Cabin in the Woods can have a neutered, PG-13-rated edit on it as a joke.
* Before that, Whedon did an uncredited rewrite of 1994's Speed, another of his still relatively few R-rated works.
** Though speaking of famously gross, I don't want to read Chuck Palahniuk's "Guts." I try to know my limits.