If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck then you have a fair idea of what you have in your pond. But, as any horror fan knows, appearances can be deceptive. And when it comes to the latest from Joss Whedon, who knows a thing or two about messing with your expectations, it’s best to keep your eyes and mind open. Because The Cabin In The Woods may look an awful lot like a horror film, but it’s no duck.
Oh, baby, are there ever spoilers after the jump. Spoilers the like of which you have never seen. Unless you’ve seen the film. In which case, on you go.
Still here? Right, once more for the back row. If you haven’t yet seen The Cabin In The Woods and have any interest in doing so, everything after the end of this paragraph constitutes a full-fat, over-caffeinated, extra-frosting-and-chocolate-sprinkles SPOILER. No whining to me after the fact. OK? Great. Fine.
The Cabin In The Woods is not a horror film. It’s a film about horror, that just happens to use the same tropes, memes, imagery and structure as your average fright flick. Actually, that’s not quite true, but let’s stick with that base assumption for the time being. I’ll be spending enough time tying myself up in semantic knots later on as it is.
In The Cabin In The Woods, a group of attractive teens take a trip to a busy five-star hotel in the middle of a bustling city and hilarity ensues. No, of course they don’t. The whole point is that we’ve seen all this before. You get a Jock, a Bimbo, a Nerd, The Comic Relief and The Good Girl, stranded out in the middle of nowhere, hacked around by nasties.
Which is all part of an elaborate and carefully considered plan. The teens are sacrifices, and the plot elements we all know so well are part of an elaborate ritual to placate ancient horrors that lurk below. For the ceremony to work, there has to be a point where they all go into the cellar and disturb an ancient relic. They have to split up when it would be obvious and sensible to stick together. Part of the fun of the film is seeing how the technicians guiding the ritual guide their victims. It’s a knowing and self-aware re-up of the standard horror rules of engagement.
And of course, we the audience are made implicit in this. Although the fourth wall is never actually broken, it takes a hammering. For example, during the obligatory sexy-time scene, Richard Gordon’s crusty old tech justifies the boobage by saying “We’re not the only ones watching this.” It’s a double-edged comment – we are creatures hiding in the darkness, drinking in the sex and gore.
Let’s think again about the notion of horror film as ritual, the sense that things have been done like this for a very long time, and NEED to be done in a certain way in order to have it work for “the audience” who/whatever that might be. If, for the sake of argument, we are analagous to the ancient terror that the technicians are working so hard to placate (are we the ones that are sleeping in the dark? Are horror films some sort of opiate of the masses)? Is it somehow OUR fault that films like this are structured like that? Are they successful because of, rather than despite the formula? That’s a pretty jaundiced view of the audience in my opinion. We get crap because it’s what we ask for.
There’s another way of looking at it – those in charge of making the films can’t concieve of another way of doing it. They give us crap because as far as they’re concerned that’s what we ask for – at least until we vote with our cash by supporting the next bright new thing on the block. Then it’s a well-greased slope, downhill all the way. Horror film makers have never been slow at scrambling onto a bandwagon, as a fresh way of telling the same old story is quickly copied, codified and diluted. Maybe the model is irretrievably broken, and the apocalyptic end of The Cabin In The Woods is actually Whedon and his co-writer Drew Goddard calling for the extermination of this kind of horror movie. As Stoner Guy says at the end, “Maybe it’s time to give something else a try.”
As soon as you start looking at the film in these terms, it takes on a whole other level of meaning, where you – or at least I – stop looking at it as entertainment and start looking at it as state-of-the-horror-nation commentary. It’s the most outrageously meta-horror since Scream, and it’s so chock full of nods to other genre hits that you start to become snow-blind at the blizzard of in-jokes.
The lack of characterisation in The Cabin In The Woods is either a problem or part of the dialogue. Characters are at best one-dimensional, or at worst placeholders. This is again a common problem in this sort of horror, where the cast is there to be quickly set up before they’re knocked down. Bradley Whitford’s techie makes this clear when he loses interest in the fate of the girl that he’s supposedly empathising with as soon as a celebratory bottle of tequila arrives to mark the successful closure of the ritual. Is it coincidental that I don’t remember what any of the characters are called? Let’s face it; names are hardly necessary when they’re clearly there to fit roles rather than live and breathe off the page and screen.
Is it also deliberate that the film is so full of gaping plotholes? Why should the agency take so much time and trouble storing nightmare creatures when surely you can cause the suffering that the ritual requires by using standard torture techniques? Have the Saw and Hostel films taught us nothing? Why have a big fat release button for all those creatures in easy reach? Yeah, sure, without it we’d miss out on the monster rampage that is the best bit of the whole movie, but it’s something of a gimme in plot terms. And how did scrawny stoner boy survive and thrive after a machete in the back? I swear, he bulks up in the latter third of the movie. Talk about getting some steel in your spine – all of a sudden the dweeb is an action hero! Should we simply note these fubars and nod knowingly – most horror films have these kind of blatant handwavey neverminds, right?
The thing is, this is not a film about horror. It’s a film about a certain kind of horror. It tells us nothing new about giallo, ghost stories, J-Horror, exorcism tales, straight-up monster rides, I could go on but you get the idea. It’s easy to pull Cabin In The Woods films apart because we know what we’re going to get. Trying to retool the old story is a noble mission. The problem is, what we’re given as an alternative is all so familiar, especially if you’re a Buffy or Angel fan. The agency at the heart of the action is a mashup of the Initiative and Wolfram and Hart (they even have Amy Acker in a white coat, furfuxache), and the Big Monster Spill is an amped-up version of the mass breakout at the end of season 4 of BTVS. After a while, the film feels like it’s set in a darker, more cynical off-shoot of the Buffyverse.
Did I like it? Well, yeah, kinda. I can admire its ambition at least. It’s clever and funny and looks good. There’s some snappy dialogue and the monster rampage is worth the price of admission for sheer bugnut craziness. But I keep running into obstacles that stop me from enjoying it as anything other than a cold intellectual exercise. As I keep saying, there are no characters to speak of. You never feel that anything or anyone is at risk. And of course, it’s shooting fish (or ducks, if I can take the opportunity to hook back to my initial metaphor) in a barrel. It’s all being very incisive about a really obvious target. Cabin In The Woods films are dumb and formulaic. Well, no duh, Einstein. Thanks for pointing that out.
I’m snarking, which is unattractive. I apologise. It comes out of a deep sense of disappointment, which I could point at myself. Maybe I’ve just watched too many horror films to enjoy Cabin On The Woods at the switch-yer-brains-off-and-enjoy-the ride level. But honestly, you expect more from a writer like Joss Whedon. He’s done better, scarier and more heartfelt stuff where you actually give a damn about what’s at stake. When the end of the world is met with a shrug from your main characters, you can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. You’d never get that with Miss Summers.
You tell me, Readership. Am I overthinking this? Is The Cabin In The Woods a refreshing new twist on an old story, or defeatist commentary on a moribund genre? I’d love to know what you think…