April 18th, 2012

Review: 8/10 Can of Whoop Ass


The Cabin in the Woods


            This is a film that should not work.  Its goal is too lofty: to completely denounce the tenants of horror films, in a serious way, while maintaining the gleeful entertainment of the films it is denouncing.  But somehow, much owing to the creative forces behind the making of the film, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods accomplishes what it sets out to do.  Most of the intricate, genre-inspired themes the film dissects will go over the heads of many viewers, but as someone who appreciates movies that challenge the viewer, this film was a real treat.  The Cabin in the Woods is less a hollow parody of the horror genre, like Scary Movie was, and more a deconstruction of the current state of horror films, weeding out the various aspects of what we have grown to expect from such films.  Horror movies are some of the hardest to make right; the audience is more demanding because of the emotional investment it involves.  Allowing yourself to be scared is a vulnerable position to put oneself in.  When a scary movie isn’t scary, or something about it falls short of our expectations, we feel cheated in a way we don’t with comedies or dramas.  Most of the horror films that get dumped on us every summer go by unnoticed (last year: Apollo 18, Insidious, Fright Night, Final Destination 5.  Have you seen or do you remember any of these?)  It takes something truly inventive for a horror film to leave a mark; something along the lines of Saw or even going back to the original Scream.  While The Cabin in the Woods will not spawn a slew of sequels like those films did, it should be regarded as a masterful critique on the horror genre as a whole.

            The film’s narrative has an A and B plot.  In the A plot, the story is as simple as the title of the film makes it out to be.  Five rambunctious, but stereotypical, college kids escape to a cabin retreat for a few days of partying.  As we’ve seen a thousand times, this will surely end in disaster, and rather quickly, things go haywire when a family of pain-worshiping zombies, “The Buckners,” are risen from the dead.  In the B plot, we see some sort of underground control center that is monitoring everything that happens to the tormented teenagers.  Slowly, as the connection between the A and B plot is made apparent, we begin to understand more.  There is a purpose to the torment these scientists inflict on their subjects, though that reason is somewhat beside the point.  The only thing that matters is that everything that happens in the A plot is due to manipulation from the people in the B plot.  With this knowledge, the strangeness of the cabin gains clarity.  We know why the jock is acting so jock-like (when he’s actually very smart), we know why the slut is acting so slutty (when she’s actually pre-med), and we know why the shy girl is acting so shy (though she isn’t the innocent virgin we suppose).  At this point, the film becomes a deconstruction of the stereotypes that pervade horror films.  The jock, the slut, the nerd, the virgin, the fool – these are just roles the people play on the screen.  Only for the limited runtime of the movie do we allow ourselves to believe that anyone could be so shallowly defined.

            And it’s not just character types that are revealed as shallow, it’s the entire world of horror.  First, we meet the “harbinger”, a chaw-chewing hick who is a clear sign of ominous things to come, “That will get you there.  Getting back is up to you.”  But then we hear the harbinger talking with the scientists and, in between spouting lines of apocalyptic prophecy, he is embarrassed that he could be put on speaker phone without his knowledge.  He’s not as ominous as we thought.  The “dark forest” that surrounds the cabin is really just a computer-controlled simulation, outfitted with cameras and ventilation shafts.  The cabin itself is actually a state of the art machine, not some old rundown, ghost-ridden hideaway.

            Soon, the characters are on to their predicament.  They realize that things might not be as straightforward as some killer zombies returning from the dead.  Recognizing that they are victims of some outward manipulation, the surviving teenagers make their way underground, gaining access to the control area.  Here, they take a wild ride on a glass elevator, getting a first hand look at the weapons the scientists use to carry out their ritualized sacrifice.  The elevator scurries by room after room of the worst nightmares anyone has every imagined.  It’s exhilarating to see all these monsters up close, one after the other.  Entire films could be made about any one of the terrors that we see.  But that, I think, is the point.  Horror films are such a visual art form, that modern directors have made the mistake of opting for style over substance.  It is no coincidence that the leader of the underground operation is “The Director,” who makes the final decisions on how things are manipulated at the cabin, just as a film director would manipulate the things that happen on the screen.  But the mechanisms of horror (the deaths, the monsters, the gore) are not as important as the motivations of horror (revenge, regret, timeless hate).  If there is no compelling story, a horror film is just a monster in a box.  In this scene, we see that the monsters are just as manipulated by horror plots as are the humans they terrorize.

            The Cabin in the Woods takes it one step further though, as it is not just a critique of bad horror films.  The audience is also to blame.  After all, movie watchers are the group from which the movie directors come from.  And the film toys with how we view horror films, playing with voyeurism and point of view.  Early on, Holden views Dana undressing through a conspicuous double mirror.  Holden struggles with whether he should say something or just keep watching, and the audience gets angry with Holden when he does the ethical thing and alerts Dana to what is happening.  “What an idiot,” we say, because we want Holden flat and predictable, amoral enough to hold his gaze and allow us to get a glimpse of Dana’s goodies.  Later, Curt and Jules are off in the forest getting hot and heavy.  The entire control room is crowded with men watching the monitors, hoping that Jules will take off her clothes.  The men are an easy stand-in for the hoard of male audience members that watch films with the same perversion.  By the time we ride in that glass elevator, and the monsters are streaming past, it’s obvious that most horror fans, though we complain about predictability and one-dimensional characters, want things to happen according to a set formula.  It’s that desire for convention that allows the production companies to dump movies like Piranha 3D on us, shelving attempts at more thought-provoking horror films.  The Cabin in the Woods challenges you to reconsider your expectations.  True, we want those thousands of monsters to be set free, to see what might happen, but when they are set free, though it is highly entertaining and almost gleefully gory, it’s utterly ridiculous.  And the writers are keen in their insight that we, as an audience, cannot have it both ways.  You can’t expect all the cheap parlor tricks while clamoring for realism.

            It is the imagination of the writers that sets this film apart.  The witty dialogue toys with its own themes, the endless slew of monsters is as diverse as it is terrifying, and the underground control center is a whole world unto itself, not just a bunch of expressionless workers pushing levers.  It adds interesting depth that the scientists believe in the altruistic purposes of their work and are not just obeying orders.  They are real people, just like the teenagers they torture with their demonic devices.  They drink and gamble and laugh.  The individual actors and characters, though adequate, are mostly beside the point.  This film is not a critique of one type of person, but an entire art form.

            And horror is a special type of art form.  It requires you not only to suspend your disbelief, but to participate with what you’re watching.  Only with that emotional investment can a horror film really be effective.  But it requires a deeper connection than volume swells at the scary parts, Gotcha! Moments, or sex-crazed teenage archetypes; it necessitates a viewer that will actively engage with the material and the themes of the narrative.  If the audience refuses that sort of engagement, then we are doomed to the formulaic slasher films that bomb into the box office every year, each more horrifyingly bad than horrifying.

            Whedon and Goddard are adept at pointing out the problem, that viewers are lazy and desirous of repetition, but pessimistic that we can change.  I got the feeling that the writers were cognizant to the fact that most viewers wouldn’t get the point of what they were watching.  Much has been made over the ending, which I won’t spoil here, but how can people complain about an ending, however ridiculous, after two hours of watching a film that has shown you, step by step, how ridiculous EVERYTHING about a horror film is?  As with all high-minded art, most people will be oblivious to its aims.  But who cares?  The Cabin in the Woods accomplishes the almost impossible task of using the same constructs present in every other horror film to critique and expose those constructs, refusing to descend into parody or satire.  It is layered and thoughtful moviemaking of the type that other films should aspire to be: one that takes itself seriously, while not losing sight of the fact that movies can be important and fun at the same time.