Monday, May 21, 2012

Four Reasons to See The Cabin in the Woods (Again)

 I caught a little grief for reviewing Lockout instead of The Cabin in the Woods following a successful (?) double feature of the two last month, but after spending a few days wading through various reviews of the film, ones approaching it from nearly every angle, it seemed unnecessary to weigh in. I also didn't want to choose between writing "Just See It!" and not explaining too much about the film, or diving into an all-out spoiler fest, which is basically the only way you can really get into why The Cabin in the Woods is worth seeing to horror fans. At this point, I think we're far enough away from the film's release that I can openly dance around plot points without ruining your experience of the film. It's not actually a facetious suggestion when someone says "the less you know, the better" for The Cabin in the Woods, but at this point either you've watched the film or you'll check it out on home video.

 The Cap'n fully intends to watch it again on Blu-Ray, probably a few times, and here are four reasons why:

 1. It's Not Exactly a Horror Movie - One of the first things I told people was that The Cabin in the Woods is a movie about horror movies. While it does follow the structure of some horror films, it's simultaneously a comedy that explains the absurdity of things that happen in horror movies, the way characters behave, and provides a rationale for the necessity of those things to happen. On more than one occasion a friend assumed The Cabin in the Woods must be a documentary, but the truth is that it's more of a "meta"-film along the lines of Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry. The film is about horror films, about audiences, and ultimately, about itself. A little further down I'll get into more specific ramifications that come from The Cabin in the Woods' "meta" message.

 In the meantime, I look forward to watching the film again because it is more of a comedy with horror elements (like Shaun of the Dead) than a horror comedy (like Dead Alive). It plays with horror conventions, both real and generally assumed tropes about what "horror films" are all about in an entertaining manner. Writer Joss Whedon and director / writer Drew Goddard are able to build tension while also sneaking in well placed laughs (primarily by juxtaposing the "cabin" section with the mundane "underground" team). Because I didn't know exactly what I was walking in to (I deliberately avoided any spoilers or information), the discovery that The Cabin in the Woods isn't so much a horror film as a riff on the idea of "horror films" was refreshing. Knowing the direction the story takes, I'm quite excited to sit down and see it again.

 2. Pay Careful Attention to Plot Construction - The Cabin in the Woods takes audiences on a ride, one that we're familiar with and take such pleasure in seeing subverted that we forget what we already know. Goddard and Whedon's screenplay is designed so well that you forget deliberately contradictory evidence to the "archetypes" each of the protagonists are supposed to represent. Dana (The Virgin) is going to the cabin in order to forget about a disastrous affair she was having with one of her professors. Holden (The Scholar) is introduced catching a football and described as having "the fastest hands on the team," while Curt (The Athlete) is giving Dana tips on better theory to read for her classes. Jules (The Whore) and Marty (The Fool) both require assistance from "Chemistry" (the hair dye and laced marijuana) to ensure the fulfill their archetypes, although it ends up backfiring with Marty, making him immune to other chemically induced "twists."

 This actually pays off later when The Director (Sigourney Weaver) admits they "work with what we've got" when Dana scoffs at being "The Virgin." Because The Cabin in the Woods is so successful at setting up established tropes about horror films and selling them with the characters we're presented, it's possible to forget that half of the "archetypes" don't actually fit.

 Now, Cabin does take some liberties the with concept of "horror tropes" and plays more on what people assume are tropes rather than what horror films actually present. This is not to say that the Virgin, Athlete, Whore, Scholar, and Fool don't appear in some variation in a lot of horror films, but that exact combination may not map on to slashers films in the way that non-horror fans assume. For example, the most obvious visual connection in the film is to The Evil Dead (arguably the best "cabin in the woods" entry) which doesn't map onto those "types" at all. If you followed The Evil Dead by Cabin in the Woods rules, Ash would be the "virgin" who makes it to the end and is killed. Now if I asked most fans of the Evil Dead series, Ash would fit the "Fool" type, especially as we move into the sequels.

 The Cabin in the Woods seems to take its archetypes from Friday the 13th Part 3, which does mostly have those "tropes" but also several other characters. Honestly, I can't think of a movie that actually follows the ritual required in Cabin, but I appreciate the idea. It's designed for audiences who are midway to serious horror fans and who don't mind that the rules are built more on a general premise than any specific film. Although, since I mentioned The Evil Dead, let's move to the next point...

 3. Easter Eggs - Aside from the obvious Hellraiser reference, there are a number of other nods (some subtle, some blatant) to other horror films, many of which are included on "the Board." The team gets together and has a pool based on which menace will be unleashed on the students, and there's a whiteboard with most of the options available. Here's the best shot of the board I could find:

 I mentioned The Evil Dead because the "board" lists both "Deadites" and "Angry Molesting Tree" as options, which implies that both Evil Dead films could theoretically have been previous "rituals" conducted for the "Ancient Ones" (maybe before they put in the lake). Based on the possibilities (as well as some of the choices we see unleashed later in the film) you could also argue that Jack Frost, The Strangers, Wrong Turn, The Deadly Spawn, The Cave, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Dog Soldiers, Diary of the Dead, and every Full Moon "evil dolls" movie ever made were variations on previous rituals. Those are the direct ones without covering more vague listings like "vampires" or "sexy witches". Beyond that, Goddard has indicated that the triggers for every single monster on the board is in the basement, which gives us plenty of incentive to freeze frames. I don't know about you, but I fully intend to find the "unicorn tapestry".

 Meanwhile, I really want to see the other countries and their contending rituals, because other than Japan's "stringy long haired pale ghost" trope from the late 90s / early 00s, I didn't quite catch what was meant to represent other forms of "foreign" horror. I thought I saw a Gothic castle and maybe a troll, but that's also one I look forward to examining more closely.

 4. Implications About Horror Before and After This Film - That's a little vague as a category, but I'm not quite sure how I'd sum up what The Cabin in the Woods says about the relationship between audiences and horror films in one sentence. During Jules and Curt's sex scene, Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) tell Truman (Brian White) that "we're not the only ones watching" and you've "gotta keep the customers satisfied" when he questions whether she needs to show "the goods." In the context of the film, you could argue that they're referring to "The Ancient Ones," but as we won't be introduced to the concept of their manipulation as part of a predetermined ritual, the dialogue reads as a direct commentary on the audience. We, the viewers, are watching The Cabin in the Woods expecting the same adherence to "formula" (in this case, T&A) as "The Ancient Ones".

 So who's to say we aren't "The Ancient Ones"? I mean, once you get past the Lovecraftian assumptions that follow any concept of an "ancient" force in horror, an idea so pervasive beyond Lovecraft's fiction that it made it all the way to Guillermo Del Toro's comic book adaptation Hellboy. Sure, I was hoping that's what The Director was talking about, but it's not what we got. We got a giant hand smashing the cabin (and presumably, destroying the world) when it didn't get what it wanted. If that isn't a metaphor for internet-age fandom I must really misunderstand bloggers and "geek" sites. I'm not saying that it's the only way to read this, but if you've spent any time reading sites that build up movies to impossible expectations and then relish their downfall in comments (and yes, I would include my reaction to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fans bashing The Expendables when the former belly flopped). Better still, there's the contingent of "complain about remakes / sequels" that also won't go see movies that don't fit into that mold or will instead complain about how those movies "probably suck". This is the mentality that plays into the end of The Cabin in the Woods, when the "Ancient Ones" don't get their ritual exactly right so they destroy everything. Better still, the protagonists let it happen in what is arguably the funniest nihilistic ending in a long time. It doesn't even give us a coda to let us down easy like Dr. Strangelove or Heathers - it's just "SMASH!"

 Now I don't think that The Cabin in the Woods is going to have the kind of impact that a Scream did. For one thing, while the people who did see it really enjoyed it (or enjoyed it with reservations or didn't like that it was a comedy but mostly liked it), it doesn't seem like The Cabin in the Woods is having the same draw that Scream did. Scream ushered in a wave of self-reflexive horror movies, mostly lousy knock-offs that didn't understand what Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven were commenting about - and I'll include Scream 2 and 3 in that list - and that became the dominant trend until the J-Horror remakes took over with The Ring. At this point in horror, we're seeing the concept of "torture porn" dying off as we move further away from the Saw series, and the remake craze is finally losing some steam after the unwatchable Nightmare on Elm Street two years ago.

 Right now things are up in the air: are the slow burns of Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) where things are headed? The splatterfest throwbacks of Adam Green (Hatchet) or Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2)? Are the French or Spanish super gore / disturbing films ([REC], Martyrs, Inside, High Tension) going to prevail? Are the "Masters of Horror" and the "Splat Pack" all done with? Is All the Boys Love Mandy Lane ever going to come out in the U.S. and would anybody watch it? Are anthology films like Trick 'r Treat, Chillerama, and V/H/S going to usher in a comeback? Is Insidious bringing back haunted houses? Is Hammer films poised to fill the void? Or is horror going to get wrapped up in this "exploitation" craze in the wake of Grindhouse or Hobo with a Shotgun (go look up "The Disco Exorcist" on YouTube).

 I'm not really sure where horror is going. The truth is that all of these directions seem to be happening at once without any clear "trend" to speak of. That's probably a good thing, although it refutes the idea that horror can be distilled into archetypes for a ritual purpose. To bring it back to the idea of "the audience" and expectations, I was surprised to talk to people who were unaware of horror theory. They had never considered that horror provides a cathartic release by building up tension and by facing viewers with their worst fears, only to allow them to return to the comfort of daylight at the end. I guess I've spent more time poring through books like Screening Violence, The Monster Show and Projected Fears because of classes I've taken and an interest in why people are drawn to the horrific. I can see how avoiding horror altogether might also cause people to be surprised that it does serve a sociological purpose - or at least there are scholars who make the case it does.

 The Cabin in the Woods asks us "what would happen if the characters rebelled?" What if the catharsis didn't happen and evil won? In that way, the film is an extension of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a film I didn't like because the director chose to impose his disdain for audience expectations on viewers, to rub their nose in it. The point in both films it that audiences are complicit in the formula a movie follows: if you expect it, they (the studios / creative forces / etc) will give it to you. Both films deny you what you expect (to some degree) to make you question your role as the voyeur. The Cabin in the Woods cheats a bit by giving you what you want but also telling you that it's happening while you watch it, but I don't know that audiences are going to be looking for more films like this. It may be a one-off that makes horror fans more demanding of what comes next, which may simply result in more "smashing". We'll see.

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