NZFF: Cabin in the Woods (USA, 2011)

Awesome fun, but.

A Goddard/Whedon clever-clever horror movie that takes the stereotypical slasher film structure and dismantles it. I fought hard to avoid being spoiled for this film but it turns out I needn’t have bothered, because it pretty much unfolds completely predictably from the juxtaposition set up in the first two scenes. The joy of it isn’t surprise though, it’s in execution, particularly in the gags. This is funny stuff. I did guffaws.

What it doesn’t do, is say anything clever about the horror genre, and I think it was trying to. There’s a subtextual thing in there that, I think, really doesn’t get what horror films are for, or conversely, what audiences want from horror films. So while I really enjoyed the film, I also want to argue with it. I suspect that the bits that threw me out of the experience – without exception, these were times it pulled a turn from grim nastiness to funny, which is trademark Whedonesque – failed for me because they were founded on this misapprehension.

Conversely, what it *does* do is celebrate scary movies. And it celebrates beautifully. It gets how scares work and how gags work and how tension unites the two. It plays out, on a scene level, beautiful beautiful moments that I will always remember. They didn’t all add up for me, but I definitely got my money’s worth. Would very happily watch again.

(Also a Go Girl takes her top off.)

7 thoughts on “NZFF: Cabin in the Woods (USA, 2011)”

  1. “What it doesn’t do, is say anything clever about the horror genre, and I think it was trying to.”

    This is an interesting problem for creative stuff, a problem which I’m seeing more from the POV of other genres at the moment, but let’s move from a general statement of the problem and into horror specifically.

    The main thing that we need to just establish up front is that what we’re talking about here is a kind of formula fiction – horror stories are generally intensively patterned. Most examples of the genre then either use those story patterns, or they consciously work against them to subvert expectations. If they subvert the expectations in a replicable way, they will spawn their own formulaic subgenre – the example in my mind right now is Dashiell Hammett’s reaction against the emerging formal detective story as contemporaneously developing in the hands of Christie et al. His deconstructive innovation was then picked up by others and the subversive elements carefully elided, and voila – the hard-boiled fiction formula emerges.

    Another example would be The Princess Bride, where the archetypal kidnap/rescue fairy tale is inverted and then inverted again… leaving it as the template for our generation of how that genre works. Nobody watches it ironically, which was one way that it was intended to be watched.

    The search for formula appears to be a powerful human instinct. You could see “The Hero’s Journey” or whatever it’s officially called, as just that. I’ve read some studies which indicate that if you tell a child a story they’re familiar with, but invert the key point, they will just retell the original story pattern with the new details filled in.

    So – we’re talking about horror as formula story, a formula picked up by Cabin in the Woods, and I’m intimating that their options for a story about a group of teens being slaughtered in the wild, that their options were to buy into those conventions or to subvert them. Buffy being Whedon’s conception of inversion, the “helpless blonde” goes into the alley with the “monster” and kills it instead of the expectation of the other way around.

    Given then, that it’s going to work inside those genre conventions – that the basic formula will be preserved, if it still wants to comment on the genre ironically or satirically (being two basic but accessible modes of fictional critique), it has a few different ways it can jump. It can go the route of “Scream” and explicitly call out meta-fictional concepts within the fiction. Or, it can go the route it did go, of juxaposing another concept as an overlay, in much the way that “Bladerunner” did by overlaying the visual cues of the hard-boiled detective over the SF premise, using both to critique each other.

    Okay – so the challenge you’re placing is for this to tell us something we didn’t know about the core formula of the kids in the woods. And I suppose that you’re not satisfied that it does, because that juxtaposition offers an explanation for the events inside the fiction that doesn’t offer a correspondening explanation for other films in that genre. i.e. no other haunted cabin has this elaborate surrounding situation to explain what’s really going on. The other young victims get into that situation by themselves.

    But what it does offer is an explanation for the interest that the audience itself has in the formula – it’s not about the formula, it’s about the audience for that formula. That means that it has a broader scope of interest than, say, “Club Dread”, which also explicitly interrogates the horror conventions from within, but with a more overtly humorous intention. “Club Dread” offers no external perspective on the unfolding situation, it uses irony and satire within the fiction itself to offer its commentary, and so all it can achieve is to highlight how unrealistic the scenario is.

    I would tentatively say that its “answer” to “why this formula” is a kind of tragic catharsis, and a search for purity. They are explicitly calling out “transgressions” that will be the origin of the “punishment” in the text, and explicitly acknowledging that the story archetypes are important rather than the real details – the main character is “close enough” to a vigin – they “work with what they’ve got”. And the ending is a total rejection of that ideological fantasy, a rejection of the raison d’etre for the formula in the first place.

    Partially then, the question comes down to – how interesting and clever do you think this investigation is? Partially that will be a matter of taste, partially a matter of judgement. For myself, I think it’s sufficiently clever to be more interesting than “Scream” or “Club Dread”, but I would tend to agree that it establishes its own terms of reference and works entirely within those – there isn’t the level of social/philosophical enquiry going on in this film as there was in something like “Night of the Living Dead” or “Dark Water”, which ask bigger questions about the nature of the human soul.

  2. I wondered if anyone would call me out on this. Because I haven’t really thought it through, I’ve just noted my own fairly strong reaction to the film and figured there was something to it. Lets dig around and see if I can back it up.

    (There will be spoilers here. Probably not big ones though.)

    It’s not that the film isn’t saying something coherent – it’s that I think it takes aim at the wrong target. It’s a pretty commonplace reading of the film, certainly the one I made and one you reference, that “the audience” (i.e. you and me who were watching the film, and by extension, people who watch films in which teenagers go off to cabins in the wood and die there) is the reason for the recurring archetypal structure the film describes. As if the audience demands it be that way. In fact I think the film is expressly a nudging criticism of the audience – an attack on our empathy, framing our interest in horror films as an act of brutality and insensitivity. The moment in the film that I disliked the most was right after the murder of “the whore”, when a reflective empathetic moment for the observers was shown to be hugely shallow when one of them got distracted. I honestly felt like the film was trying to chide me, there, albeit from an affectionate place.

    I think the film gets it wrong.

    Cabin seems to believe the hype about what horror films are and what they do and how people react to them. As if Friday the 13th was the platonic form of the horror film, and all others are variations on that theme. (Obviously it undermines its own thesis with its referencing – Evil Dead, Hellraiser, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead are all strongly referenced, and none of them have much connection to the ur-form Cabin proposes.)

    Similarly, Cabin misses that horror films sit within a larger framework of “popular films”.
    The five archetypes, for example, are hardly exclusive to horror movies and I believe originated in high school party movies – horror movie protagonists used to be hardnosed scientists, back in the day. The moral dimension to the horror, alluded to in the virgin survive/whore to die structure, is barely examined and in fact the “choose your fate” angle undermines it by linking their destruction not to any specific sin but just to whichever bauble takes someone’s fancy. And of course the moral dimension is just an elaborated (extreme, violent) expression of general cultural morality expressed across cinematic genre.

    Cabin investigates its target effectively enough, but it only works as a broader comment about horror film and watching horror if you accept that target is accurately framed. I don’t. And that’s why I don’t think it has anything smart to say about horror movies. (Is this what you mean with “it establishes its own terms of refernece and works entirely within those”.)

    Maybe I’m wrong #1: maybe it isn’t meant to be about horror movies, maybe the target is the stereotypical conception of horror movies in popular culture. In which case it’s successful, but why the hell is it making a movie about that?

    Maybe I’m wrong #2: the juxtaposition of laughter and disinterest with the grisly fate of the first teen to die is powerful; that is partly why it stuck with me. Maybe I deserve to be chided after all, maybe horror audiences in general do, for the simple fact of seeing gory murder as weightless entertainment. That doesn’t track too well with my experience but my friend who works in a video store assures me that there is a big class of folk who love to rent movies with bloody murders in, the gorier the better, so they can laugh at them. So am I being defensive and justifying it with fancy talk? Maybe. I don’t think so, though, for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Trying to figure out why leads me to think of the ending fo the film, which you note is a rejection of the rationale for the structure – maybe because I felt that the ending was funny and awesome and appropriate to the narraative and theme, but also completely devoid of teeth. If I am part of the audience demanding this structure, shouldn’t I care when that structure is attacked, when (in a character’s words) it would be better that it doesn’t exist at all? That’s probably expecting too much of the ending actually but that’s all I can figure right now.

  3. Wow, what fascinating analyses, really gives me a lot to think about! My initial reaction was just “yay, awesome!” Ha ha. I am a big horror movie lover, and I really appreciated all the nods to classic horror characters. I also really appreciated the construction of an elaborate infrastructure surrounding the horror event and the imposition of simple tropes on the messiness of real life. However, the death of the whore moment stuck out for me/bothered me also, and that was perhaps the one sour note for me. Was it a chiding? I’m not sure – perhaps. I think in the way that over-the-top horror/tragedy is funny when it happens remotely, but when it happens to you it’s a different story (and this surely has to be the key of its appeal for those who like to rent films full of bloody murders).

    Anyway, obviously my experience of it was much less analytical and as I said, lots to take away and ponder! Thanks for the food for thought. 🙂

  4. Well holy crap.

    Watching Cabin again, and it turns out my memory was VERY wrong. “The moment in the film that I disliked the most was right after the murder of “the whore”, when a reflective empathetic moment for the observers was shown to be hugely shallow when one of them got distracted…” – this DOES NOT happen like this. The ‘distraction’ happens much later, when one of the observers is reflceting on how he is rooting for “the virgin”. It comes across in a much less chiding tone.

    I think I stand by my overall reaction to the subtext stuff – maybe I remembered that scene the way I did because it was in theme with how I was reacting overall? Anyway. More to reflect on…

  5. I think almost all my problem with the subtext/theme of Cabin would be fixed by one line of dialogue:
    “We don’t know what they want. But this seems to work. So this is what we do.”

  6. Just reading these comments now:

    I don’t know about Goddard, but Whedon has explicitly said that Cabin was supposed to be taking what was known as “torture porn” movies to task. He had been particularly disturbed by billboards for Captivity, and how they seemed to play on audience sadism (though to me, it seemed more like they were trying to get publicity through controversy and were probably thrilled that someone with as big a following as Whedon gave them free ad space on his blog).

    There were two fundamental problems with this, though.

    1/ The movie was filmed in 2009, its release was delayed, and it eventually came out in 2012. The
    “torture porn” cycle had already peaked and started to fall off by 2007, so even if it had come out on schedule it would have been late to the party. Thus the movie is telling off an audience for movies that they stopped watching five years earlier.

    2/ It doesn’t resemble the kinds of movies that it was supposed to be taking to task in any way. It’s nothing like Hostel, Saw, The Devil’s Rejects, etc. What it does resemble is early ’80s horror, specifically Friday the 13th and Evil Dead. So in terms of being a satire or parody, it’s a good thirty years late. (And people said Mel Brooks was late to the game by parodying Star Wars in 1987!)

    The big horror movies of 2009 were things like Twilight: New Moon, Paranormal Activity and Zombieland. In the intervening years, the big horror hits have been more Twilight movies, more Paranormal Activity movies, Black Swan, Piranha 3D, Super 8, etc. The remake of the ’70s TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark made more money than the sorts of movies Cabin in the Woods is telling people off for watching! It’s like a parent in the punk era trying to be cool by talking about The Beatles.

    It’s a fun movie for what it is, but it’s not as clever or incisive as its makers clearly believe. But when someone has a fanbase as blind to your faults as Joss Whedon’s, it’s probably hard for them to see their own limitations.

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