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Non-Review Review: Cabin in the Woods

Part of me wonders when it’s appropriate to start ranking the year’s films. I say that, because I’ve just had the pleasure of catching The Cabin in the Woods, which is easily one of the best films of the year so far, and the best horror movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. I know those sound like trite clichés, but Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s exploration of the horror genre just bristles with a raw energy that sweeps up the audience.

It’s a rare horror film that has you laughing when it wants you to laugh, while keeping you anticipating shocks that you know it knows you know are coming. In many ways, it seems like Cabin in the Woods comes from a very raw and personal place from both director and writer, one conflicted over the genre as a whole. From the outset it’s clear that Whedon and Goddard truly love the conventions and the thrills, while loathing the inherent voyeurism and nihilism that is almost inseparable from those aspects. It’s a weird dichotomy, and Cabin in the Woods is a weird film, but weird in that most brilliant of ways.

Who is afraid of the big bad wolf?

A lot of the joy of Cabin in the Woods is going to be audiences enjoying it for themselves, and experiencing all the weird twists and turns. I don’t want to spoil that for anybody, so I’m going to try to cover the movie’s plotting even less than I usually do in these madcap stream-of-consciousness ramblings. I’ll be especially avoiding the third act, aside from admitting that it’s the most gleefully insane closing sequence I have seen in a considerable amount of time. To use one cliché from another genre, the first rule of Cabin in the Woods is that you do not talk about Cabin in the Woods. To use another cliché from something maybe a tiny bit nearer, nobody can tell you what Cabin in the Woods is, you need to experience it for yourself.

If you’re looking for a recommendation, go see it. If you’re a horror fan, go see it. If you’re a film buff, go see it. If you love a bit of insanity on the big screen, definitely go see it. If you harbour any affection for self-awareness, go see it. Asked to provide a brief summary or a taste of what the movie is like, I can only offer: Cabin in the Woods is Evil Dead coked up to the eyeballs and savagely bunted into the post-Scream twenty-first century horror landscape. That sounds gleefully ambiguous, but I think it’s a fair description.

Note: Despite my best efforts, from here on out there are slight spoilers. Almost nothing from half-way through the film, and a minimum amount of context, but reader discretion is advised.

Teenage wasteland...

Goddard sets his credits against the imagery of old human sacrifices, and it’s an image the film returns to time and again. It’s clear that Goddard and Whedon draw a connection between the horror genre and those old blood-lettings. Both allow a society to indulge in carnal and depraved bloodlust as a way of misplacing their own fears and anxieties. Just as sacrificing a child allowed an old village to put off the fear of a coming drought, characters like Michael Myers or Freddie Krueger stand-in for our own fears around the random brutality modern life.

At one point, a younger and more earnest character wonders how his co-workers can so gleefully enjoy the promise of mass gore and carnage. He’s told, “They’re just letting off steam.” It doesn’t make the sequence any less unpleasant – and it allows Whedon and Goddard to point an accusing finger at the audience. Sure, we can understand the reason that we enjoy these sorts of films, but that doesn’t excuse the celebration of the ridiculous misogyny or the disturbing torture porn. We don’t get off the hook.

Mirror mirror...

Cabin in the Woods is a movie about horror movies. The architect of the mysterious dark events is referred to as “the director” and Whedon and Goddard play into the inherent voyeuristic aspect of these films more than most. We regularly cut back and forth to two office workers who seem to be constructing a horror narrative around the events, played brilliantly by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. They seem like regular guys, talking about family planning and cracking jokes, but they’re really trying to fashion a conventional horror movie from what they describe as “the scenario.”

As most of the marketing has revealed, the film is about a bunch of teenagers. However, Whedon’s script is careful to give them some element of personality beyond the fodder we expect from horror films, subverting our expectations. The dumb blonde is only dying her hair. (And the chemicals in her hair dye are lowering her inhibitions.) The “jock” is actually a sociology major with carefully considered opinions on academic textbooks. And the virgin… well, she’s not really. In many ways, the cast seems to represent an attempt to transcend the limitations of the conventional horror narrative. “We work with what we’re given,” the director states.

Cabin fever...

And yet we watch as mysterious forces try to force the narrative into a far more predictable shape. When the muscle-bound jock suggests that the group should stay together, a quick edit has him deciding to split everybody up. Moonlight is redirected, the temperature is raised, and pheromones are released for a romantic fumble in the forest, before two teens encounter something a bit grisly. There’s absolutely nothing original about the set-up. “This is a ritual!” one character insists, and she’s not far wrong.

Goddard and Whedon seem to level a fairly hefty (but fair) criticism at a stagnant horror genre that can’t help but adhere to a formula that seems to have existed since the dawn of time. There’s a rich dose of irony to the scenes with our voyeurs as the film seems to make both the creators and the audience complicit in the dumbing down of the American horror film. One of our workers claims that the only people doing the job properly are America and Japan, and both are struggling.

If you go down to the woods today...

And so the conventions of the horror film are mercilessly skewed. “Show us some boobies!” one of our watchers yells during an obligatory make-out scene, echoing the sentiments of every pre-pubescent boy sneaking a look at a naughty horror film before they come of age. Anything more would provoke a harsher rating (despite the fact graphic violence is a-okay), and it’s clear that the women in these films mostly exist as objects. When, fleetingly, female sexuality is embraced, our two voyeurs just sit there awkward and uncomfortable, unaccustomed to seeing a woman treated as anything but a sex object. The titillation is gone. This is boring, the two guys seem to think.

Indeed, Whedon’s script even tears apart the rather thin illusion of morality that such horror fables cling to. As our two voyeurs try to rationalise the horror about to unfold, they try to paint the bunch of teenagers as somehow responsible for the violence coming their way. One identifies the creepy gas station attendant (“the harbinger” aka Mordecai aka “Mordy”) as a warning that shouldn’t have been ignored – as if the kids are somehow responsible for a decision to continue on their vacation after one encounter with a creepy yokel.

Taking a window of opportunity...

Later on, the group is tempted with a basement lined with all sorts of shady trinkets designed to lure the group to their doom. Again, the voyeurs try to shift the blame on to the kids. “If they don’t transgress,” one insists, “they can’t be punished.” It’s somehow telling that several of the items designed to entice transgression are inherently voyeuristic – the diary of a young girl documenting her abuse at the hands of an evil patriarch; reels of film on the wall; even unlocking a strange puzzle box.

The idea seems to be that the teens earn their bloody fate by sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong. It’s more than a little ironic, then, that we should so eagerly consume the details of their horrors. Surely the audience is just as culpable in digesting a grotesque story? Surely our voyeurism is just as significant as theirs might be? It’s a tough question, and a brave one for Whedon and Goddard to level directly at us. No matter how we might enjoy and revel in the tropes of horror, there’s an element of complicity in our voyeurism that probably doesn’t reflect too well on us.

It's bloody brilliant...

It’s that strange blend of love and hate that really works in favour of Cabin in the Woods. It’s that beautiful and improbable balance that allows the criticisms to carry a great deal of weight, without ever seeming cynical and cold-blooded. Whedon’s script is sharp as ever (“good work, zombie hand!”) and Goddard’s direction is confident, with a cast that do their absolute best with the sterling material on hand. the CGI at points might be a little ropey, but that’s not a problem – the movie has swept us in by that point.

Cabin in the Woods is easily one of the very best films I have seen so far this year. I can’t wait to dig into it again.

5 Responses

  1. Brilliant write up! Very thoughtful and a great read! I haven’t felt so told off by a movie since We Need to Talk About Kevin. But at least Cabin let me laugh my ass off through the climax!

  2. I wanted to see this so badly, but my significant other doesn’t really like the genre. And I’m not inclined to go to the movies alone.

    • My better half, who hates horror, actually quite liked the meta-fictional criticism stuff. She dind’t like the horror though, but she found it “interesting”, which I think is a high approval rating indeed.

      • My experience was quite positive, but after watching I think that as much as Whedon and Goddard’s metaness would have been appreciated, she made the right decision. I’m glad your better half had a good time.

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