Monday, April 16, 2012

The Genre Film to End Them All - A Discussion of Cabin in the Woods

Spoiler-Free Review:

There's no shortage of doe-eyed love letters passing as reviews for Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods, so let me quickly add one more to the heap and hope it becomes the blurb on the front of the DVD cover:

Never before have the words "Instant Classic" been as apt as when applied to Cabin in the Woods. It not only explains and illuminates every other horror film; it effectively ends the genre by having it all. What could follow this? Thanks for ruining horror, assholes!" (Full disclosure: I'm prone to over-statement, especially when Hollywood does something right.)

While Cabin in the Woods is not really the end-all, be-all of horror films, it is a clever, hilarious, and balls-out gory film that surpassed even my sky-high expectations by a mile. It is destined to be a cult classic, and will doubtless become fodder for repeat viewings here at Casa de Macabre.

I'm going to leave it at that and follow suit with the legions of reviewers who have vowed to give away as little as possible, because the thrill of the surprise is half the fun (the other half being carnage, of course). And if you, like I did, thought the trailer gave pretty much everything away, well, just go see the damned movie.

Spoiler-Filled Discussion:

Alright, let's get right down to it. Wasn't that about the most batshit crazy thing you've seen since Dead Alive? I had to have the guano-eating grin surgically removed from my face after watching this. Being the Lovecraft freak that I am, the whole sacrifice for the Beast angle didn't come as much of a surprise. It was the form the 3rd act took that really blew me away. I've always dug those movies like The Monster Squad and Van Helsing that try to bring all the classic monsters together, but Cabin in the Woods includes pretty much every horror archetype ever. And you had me at werewolf. You had me at werewolf.

There's a lot of discussion going around about the social critique Cabin in the Woods makes. I see what people are saying, but I don't agree that it is necessarily a critique. I do agree that the Elder-God Beasts that need to see blood and boobies to be satisfied is really a metaphor for the audience, but many critics seem to think that this is a condemnation of our blood-thirsty sense of entertainment. I believe that Cabin in the Woods was too lovingly crafted and too knowledgeable about the horror genre to ever be a condemnation of screen violence. It is rather an acknowledgment of what Stephen King posited decades ago in Danse Macabre: we consume horror out of a primal, sub-conscious need to "Feed the Beast" within us all.

Take for instance, the treatment of the puppet-masters in the film. They have a betting pool on what form the sacrifice will take and they celebrate the imminent deaths of the unsuspecting teens with libations, music, and dancing. But at the same time, they are depicted as likable, human characters who are concerned with the same things we all go through. The opening scene is a conversation about fertility and trying to start a family. As far as villains go, they're awfully hard to hate. It would have been so easy to render them as heartless automatons delighting in the suffering of others, which would have been the case if the agenda of the film was to demonize violent entertainment.

Maybe I'm just making excuses for my macabre tastes, but honestly, who isn't fascinated by death? Violent, horrible death in particular. To me it's much more honest to just accept that human beings, no matter how civilized, no matter how strong their personal commitment to non-violence, has a violent, brutal side. Should we try to tamp it down and try to access our more temperant, gentle sides? Absolutely. Should we shun violent entertainment? Fuck no. It's a release value for the vast majority of us. Sure, violent people are drawn to violent entertainment, and are sometimes inspired by it to act on their violent urges, but at that breaking point, it could be any trigger.

I know, this debate has been done to death. What I'm getting at is that Cabin in the Woods is an unapologetic horror film. It is being embraced by mainstream critics because it is undeniably good, but it's disconcerting to me how many of them have to make it into an anti-violence manifesto in order to enjoy it. But we don't put much stock in their opinions, do we?

Also consider the treatment of the protagonists. The archetypal characters of the virgin, the whore, the jock, the brain, and the fool are well-worn clichés of the genre. The characters in Cabin in the Woods refuse to conform to these stereotypes. The jock is sociology major, the virgin has been sleeping with her professor, and the fool/stoner is the only one wise enough to understand what is going on. The puppet-masters have to employ chemicals to make the (artificial) blonde ditsy and uninhibited. When the group wisely decides to stick together for protection, only a mist of mind-clouding chemicals induced them to make the stupid mistakes that are par for the course in most horror films. And that's the quality that sets Cabin in the Woods above mindless slashers. Joss Whedon has always had a particular knack for bringing out the reality of his characters, no matter how fantastical the situations he puts them in.

The truly surprising thing about Cabin in the Woods is that it ever got made, and was allowed to stay true to its creators' vision. What isn't particularly surprising is that it sat on a shelf for 3 years before the studio worked up the balls to release it. Then again, it opened behind The Three Stooges, so maybe studio conservatism isn't entirely unfounded.

Perhaps the most delightful surprise of all was the ending. Whenever a movie actually goes where I want it to, I'm floored and exhilarated (see also Perfume). While it would have been pretty satisfying to see Dana shoot Fran to save the world, I was firmly rooting for them to let the apocalypse happen. And it led to one of the greatest lines in film history, "I'm sorry I almost let you get killed by a werewolf and then ended the world." You could plausibly say, then, that Cabin in the Woods has the highest body count in film history, even though most of it is implied.

There was a certain amount of truth in my earlier blurb, though. How can you follow this film? It deconstructs horror to an alarming degree, has every horror archetype imaginable, and ends with a bloodbath rarely seen. The weakest aspect of the film is that it isn't particularly scary, but horror fans will love it regardless. And yes, horror will continue in earnest, mining out psyches for the most disturbing and frightening images we can come up with, but it seems like we've turned some kind of a corner with Cabin in the Woods. It would be pointless to cover this territory again, and maybe that's a good thing. If we're lucky, Cabin in the Woods will inspire horror filmmakers to shun the clichés and strive to bring us something we've never seen before. That's me being optimistic, but I don't believe it for a second.

Hell, I’m just pissed that I didn’t come up with this first.


  1. High five. I saw it on Monday and like you, just smiled my way through it. I mean, THE UNICORN!

    And I agree that assigning it a "WE'RE the monsters for watching this!" meaning is silly. If anything, it just reminds me of so many Buffy episodes where other questions of sacrifice and duty came up. It's very Season 5, and I loved it.

    1. You say unicorn, I say Ballerina! That little critter is awesome!

      Now the only thing I'm worried now are the imitators waiting to cash in...

  2. Simply put, this out Screams Scream.

    As for the commentary, I didn't take it as referring to us the audience. Rather I thought it was a subtle but well done commentary on life right now. There was a pervasive feeling that at any moment, things could have been erased and started anew. It just so happen that this group of sacrificial kids happened to be 'the group.' You knew at some point the whole act couldn't possibly be kept going without some sort of mess up (we're human after all). Fran's quip at the end affirmed it all, that maybe it was time to start over. Who hasn't felt that at some point over the last couple of years in our current state of crazy affairs in the world? Such a brilliant film.

  3. Right on. I loved this film to pieces. It was a love letter to horror fans for sure.

  4. It had me at Sugar Plum Fairy.


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