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My 12 for ’12: The Cabin in the Woods & The Virtues of Constructive Criticism

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #4

The horror movie has always been a bit of an ugly stepchild when it comes to film genres. It seems, for instance, that horror movies (and directors) have to wait longer to receive recognition for the work that they’ve done. The Shining, for example, earned several Razzy nominations in the year of release, but is now regarded as one of many classics within Kubrick’s oeuvre. There are lots of reasons that the horror genre is easy enough to dismiss or ignore.

You could argue that there’s something so basic about fear that it isn’t considered as much of an artistic accomplishment to scare the audience. There are legitimate arguments to be made about the sexist connotations of various horror films. Perhaps more than any other genre, successes within the horror genre have a tendency to lead to self-cannibalisation – sequels, remakes, knock-offs – that dilute and erode any credibility that the original film had earned. The innovation of Paranormal Activity is harder to recognise after half-a-decade of found-footage imitations. The cleverness of the original Saw becomes harder to distinguish amongst a crowd of “torture porn” wannabes.

All of these are very legitimate criticisms to make about the nature of the genre as a whole, and perhaps they speak to why films within that niche are so easily dismissed. I will aggressively argue that several horror films are among the most important films ever made, but I will also concede that there is (as with everything) a lot of trash out there, and a lot of things we need to talk about. Cabin in the Woods feels like a genuine attempt to have that sort of conversation, and to raise those questions. More than that, though, it comes from a place of obvious affection for the genre and all that it represents. This isn’t a stern lecture about the inherent inferiority of a particular type of film,  but constructive criticism from a bunch of people who care deeply about the genre as a whole.

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When I was first drafting this list, I considered suggesting a “double feature” for each entry – another film I enjoyed in the year that tried to capture the same ideas and themes, but didn’t quite do it as well as the film that eventually made the list. To be fair, I was thinking of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in Woods while I toyed with that idea. I’d argue that Whedon and Goddard’s effort manages to pull off a number of familiar concepts with more skill, enthusiasm and intelligence than any of the other movies that wrestled with these ideas over the course of the year.

For example, it’s the clear affection for the raw material that separates Cabin in the Woods from so many other “meta” criticisms of conventional film genres. Taking the much-maligned horror genre, celebrated director Michael Haneke directed two separate versions of his movie Funny Games, a story clearly constructed as a criticism of violence for the sake of violence. He constructed a movie about the brutal torture of a married couple by two sadistic teenagers, often seeming to call the audience out for their voyeuristic enjoyment of the grim spectacle. The problem with Haneke’s efforts were that they felt somewhat redundant.

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Those people who agreed with his criticisms and shared his contempt of such films were unlikely to see Funny Games. Those who enjoyed horror movies were unlikely to engage with a film that was so intent on criticising their affection for the genre that one of the characters repeated breaks the fourth wall to point out how perverse the viewer actually is. Funny Games just felt like an attempt to justify Haneke’s own attitudes, and ended up inaccessible both to those who disliked that sort of film (because it portrayed that sort of violence) and those who had an interest in the genre (because it was prone to rather bluntly lecturing them).

This year, I’d argue, we saw a somewhat similar problem with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. Seven Psychopaths is a solidly made and very clever piece of film, one that is determined to examine the “revenge” subgenre, deconstructing it and turning the conventional tropes on their heads. The main character, Martin, laments the fact that he seems to be writing a Hollywood “serial killer movie”, and just wants to turn everything inside it inside out.

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Instead of revelling in the blood and gore, how about the characters drive out to the desert and talk things out? What if a character in the film were an actual pacifist, rather than the kind of “ready to kill at the drop of a hat” pacifist characters that so often populate such fare? These are interesting avenues for exploring the genre, and the second half of Seven Psychopaths is absolutely superb. The problem is that McDonagh doesn’t seem especially enthused by the fact that he has to set up a conventional revenge thriller in order to subvert it.

I don’t think that McDonagh’s film was anywhere near as fundamentally flawed as Haneke’s Funny Games. For one thing, the pay-off was exceptional. Even the first half was reasonably solid – elevated by a great cast and the fact that the motions are so obvious that McDonagh could still work in a few nice touches while sleepwalking through them. However, McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths never quite matched the raw enthusiasm of Whedon and Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods.

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It’s immediately clear that both men have a huge affection for the subgenre. Just note, for example, the abundance of gags and references slipped in under the radar. The betting pool in the control room features an array of monster movie favourites. In a variation of a conversation that most horror movie aficionados have had at one point or another, one member of staff objects that she picked the winning ghoul.

“That’s not fair!” she protests. “I had zombies too!” Sitterson has to break out his monster movie taxonomy and clarify, “Yes, you had “Zombies.” But this is “Zombie Redneck Torture Family.” Entirely separate thing. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.” Anybody who has engaged in a passionate discussion about whether the creatures from 28 Days Later are actually zombies (‘they’re not dead!’ and ‘they can run!’) will empathise.

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There’s also the fact that – despite the rather familiar “set-up” – this feels like a real film, more than a self-aware parody of one. We typically spend a bit of time with the doomed cast members in a horror film, but it often feels like padding as the special effects budget keeps the gore at bay for the opening half-hour. Like Scream, which is really the closest thing to a companion piece that exists, Cabin in the Woods works because we care about the characters trapped inside this strange set up as more than the five primal archetypes.

Yes, these characters are inside a film that exists to criticise horror tropes, but what keeps the film from feeling like an academic exorcise is the fact that we actually come to recognise even the least-developed supporting cast members (like Curt and Jules) as more than just “the athlete” and “the whore.” The notion that the characters have to be “reduced” down to fit these particular roles, with doping and drugging and brainwashing, is both a clever piece of commentary on how shallow most horror characters are and a smart way to build the characters.

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And, as with a lot of Whedon’s writing, the reason that Cabin in the Woods works so well is because we empathise with these people. Whedon gets a lot of flack for treating his characters terribly. I actually don’t mind – the fact that not every cast member in a Whedon production is safe makes it that much more suspenseful. However, the reason that people react to the fact that Whedon treats his characters like chewtoys comes from the fact that we actually care about them. Even the arguably villainous characters like Hadley and Sitterson are well-developed and easy to understand, talking about things like child-proofing and winding up fellow staff-members.

That’s about half the reason that Cabin in the Woods works as well as it does. The affection for the genre makes it that much easier to accept the criticism, and Cabin in the Woods also carries a considerable volume of that.  For one things, “the Ancient Ones” seem like a fairly biting jab at the audience for creatively bankrupt “torture porn” or slasher horror movies, being fed what seems to be a steady diet of sex and violence in such a calculated and micromanaged manner that Hadley and Sitterson seem to be ready to fall asleep during the mandated sex scene.

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Who needs a lengthy and wordy condemnation of how indifferent we can become to violence when we’re treated to what seems like a conventional office party while a live stream of the monster throwing Dana around like a rag doll is broadcast to the massive monitors around the office? There’s a sense of just how horrible and terrifying and grotesque the whole thing is as we watch Fran Kranz transform Marty from the pot-smoking comic relief to a young man clearly struggling with post-traumatic stress.

Perhaps most effectively, however, is the way that Whedon and Goddard completely strip away the pretense of that sort of artistically vacuous horror film. Despite all the horrors lurking in their cubic cells, the most uncomfortable moment in the film occurs when “the Director” calmly explains to Dana that she has to kill Marty in order for everything to have a happy ending. The Director doesn’t have any malice or hate, it’s strictly a calculated decision – and it’s that cold and rational approach that makes it so terrifying.

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It’s the reduction of an entire genre of films down to a conveyor built of logical story beats, familiar structures and derivative ideas. They might call the process that the cast endures a “ritual”, but it’s really more of a formula. It’s heavily processed, with every variable measured. There’s nothing creative or organic about it. It’s about crunching numbers and reaching objectives. If Whedon and Goddard are to be believed, these sorts of horror films are no longer produced by talented young artists, but by office workers in white shirts and ties adhering rigidly to patterns laid down a long time ago.

This makes the brutality somehow far more disturbing than it might otherwise be. Perhaps we have – through decades of sequels and prequels and remakes – become somewhat desensitised to violence and suffering, and Whedon and Goddard make it all the more uncomfortable by pulling back the curtain and letting us peer at how the mechanics of these sorts of horror films must work.

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Again, Cabin in the Woods tackles this idea with far more skill than any other movie this year. The Hunger Games was arguably positioned much better to explore the notion of violence in the media, and how consumption of this sort of manufactured carnage might numb a society, but the film wimped out. It lacked the courage of its convictions. Afraid of alienating teenagers or parents, it presented a sanitised version of child-on-child violence. It couldn’t even convincingly aim towards irony, as it asked us to condemn the spectacle while cheering on the “good kids” who killed the “bad kids.”

Cabin in the Woods is easily the best horror film of the past decade, a smart and sophisticated examination and exploration of a genre that is far too easily overlooked and ignored. More than that, it’s just plain fun. Any movie willing to categorise a unicorn as a creature of nightmares is well worth seeing. I’m surprised that discussion of the film has died down a bit as we reached the end of the year.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

04. Cabin in the Woods

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