THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
The poster for the movie is smart and mysterious. The cabin is detached from the woods it is supposed to be inside. It offers a clue to what will make the movie different. This horror movie will have an added dimension. The Cabin In The Woods earned twice the considerable amount of money it cost to make and received critical acclaim. An inevitable sequel followed. The movie demonstrates originality and intelligence. There are some witty lines of dialogue, and serious ideas about both horror movies and the limitations of the modern world exist behind the mayhem. The movie is misanthropic and, despite the humour and wit, informed by despair. Those who like the film are entitled to the distractions it offers. They laugh at smart in-the-know jokes and feel gratified because they have identified the serious themes. Some of us, though, are not so easily flattered, and the success of Joss Whedon depends on audiences that are susceptible to flattery.
Many years ago the film critic in Punch magazine asked, ‘how do you burlesque a burlesque?’ He was talking about the James Bond films of the sixties and the various send-ups that followed. Most of these spy spoofs have been forgotten. The movies were limp and tedious. More important the humour in those films was irrelevant. The jokes were already in the original Bond films. Absurdity has existed in popular culture and entertainment for over three thousand years. What appear to be cheese and corn to one generation were previously recognised as audacity and irony by others. All we have to do to understand this is read Homer and Shakespeare. Not every attempt at audacity and irony succeeds. The level of success helps define quality but views regarding what is tolerable absurdity change. The impossible antics of superheroes of today would be laughed at by a mediaeval audience if we could find one.
Although completed in 2010 The Cabin In The Woods appeared in cinemas in 2012. Scream director Wes Craven had already exposed the routine formula behind horror movies fourteen years earlier in 1996. The jokes or point had been made. One of the attempts at humour in The Cabin In The Woods is embarrassing and crude. The typical bulky handsome hero suggests that the four college friends separate to cover more ground in what is a small cabin. The joke is that this always happens in horror movies. Instead of staying together the victims part and allow not only the monster to kill them one by one but also the proliferation of set pieces. The problem with the scene is that the joke is several decades too late. Hitchcock managed the trick of separating the victims in Psycho but he had a smart scriptwriter. When the overrated Alien arrived in 1979, we were already familiar with the cliché and the device.
The script of The Cabin In The Woods was written in three days. This is not necessarily bad. The audacity that genre entertainment needs is often inspired or facilitated by contempt. Take a potboiler too seriously and it will become leaden and stodgy. But two people worked on the script of The Cabin In The Woods. The moment that calls for the group to separate, and a few others, should have set off alarm bells. Writing in three days the script of a film that has had blockbuster appeal requires talent but even the gifted writer benefits from having the time to become acquainted with his characters and plot. If the writers are not engaged with the story, it is no surprise if it fails to involve those who are interested in something more than sarcastic spectacle. There is also something distasteful about spending $30m on a film that satirises the efforts of filmmakers who had a fraction of that budget.
The Cabin In The Woods is a deliberate and textbook example of postmodern culture. The movie has an original concept and approach but avoids original moments. Instead, Joss Whedon creates a kaleidoscope jumble of clichés and familiar moments. This is not a criticism. Not just horror movies are targeted, and there is some reward in identifying the various references, elements and genres. What The Cabin In The Woods lacks, though, is a cohesive whole. The movie feels like two films tacked together, the old spooky dark house in the first half and the dystopian technological nightmare in the second. Each section has a different objective or target and neither is given enough attention. The characters and the movie leave the old dark house too soon for it to be a satisfying examination of horror movies. Compared to what other filmmakers have achieved with old dark houses the satire in The Cabin In The Woods is underdeveloped. We are familiar with the caricatures and their predictable fates. This is okay but their premature demise is not. As in Alien, the moments of slaughter appear as sudden shocks rather than the conclusion of scenes of suspense. There is humour in The Cabin In The Woods but most of it is confined to the dialogue. The visual potential of horror is considerable, which is why it attracts young and ambitious directors ready to demonstrate cinematic style. In The Cabin In The Woods the best visual effects exist near the end of the film.
The climax is a dystopian nightmare that precipitates an Armageddon. Compared to The Cabin In The Woods the ambition of Westworld is modest. Nothing can justify an apocalypse but before we are doomed there are brief pleasures. The insert from Japan is clever. Whedon takes a sly dig at Japanese horror movies and the need of those directors to feature innocent schoolgirls. The corridor shots inside the computer centre after the widespread slaughter confirm how the human imagination is degraded in a world designed to provide gratification and little else. The descent of the elevator down to the technological hub and nerve centre is also very fine. The violence is restrained because the monsters are trapped behind glass walls. The journey is haunting rather than violent and it is very sinister.
The Cabin In The Woods is not the only film to invite us to watch another audience and its creation. For the structure to succeed, though, there needs to be more than scattergun fun and jokes that most of us are primed to expect. Yet despite the second rate mockery The Cabin In The Woods does not feel like self-indulgence. If anything, the movie suggests atonement by Joss Whedon for some of the escapist nonsense that has brought him fame and wealth. The final scene, which is about as unhappy as could be imagined, reveals the hidden truth about the fascist fantasies that Hollywood and Whedon have called action movies. In a contest between superheroes and super villains decency and humanity will be found not amongst the supposed good guys waging battle but off screen amongst ordinary and undistinguished people. This is more than whimsy. Amidst his atonement Joss Whedon shares his misgivings about the modern world. The Cabin In The Woods is loaded with warnings. Imaginations programmed for sadistic thrills will not be alert to the consequences of their behaviour. The final murder in The Cabin In The Woods is ignored by the spectators inside the movie. Technology also makes us remote from human feeling. The bureaucrats and technicians place bets on outcomes rather than worry about the fate of human beings. Thanks to technology the corporate world can hide behind machines and secret algorithms. The technicians in The Cabin In The Woods are the new unapproachable secular gods. Faced with their power, old-fashioned heroism, as the two survivors realise, is futile.
Horror movies are conceptual and have the virtue of teasing out the hidden neuroses of human beings. But the sadistic taste for mindless gore that exists amongst some horror fans cannot be denied. Nothing exposes our double standards more than our attitude to physical pain in our neighbours. We can be sympathetic but pragmatism about suffering and stoicism is for other people. Right now the utilitarian politicians that run the world have decided to escalate the conflict in Syria. A few of the powerful decided that bombs and casualties were needed to make a point to other powerful people. These decisions could mean a lot of innocent Syrians will experience additional physical pain and premature death. Those making the decisions may have to risk a disadvantage in future meetings with rivals but they will, of course, be immune to any of the physical pain. In their world of bulletproof limousines and obsequious lackeys any discomfort is minimal for these self-imagined good guys. The rest of us in the West may not share the luxury of our masters but, like the bureaucrats in The Cabin In The Woods, we have the benefit of watching the suffering of others on large TV screens. Some of us object to the creation of violent conflict in remote lands but many of us fail to sustain our protest. Others, often middle-aged males, respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of a battle that will not involve them. Nothing adds to the spectacle on our screens quite like violence. Escalation of the Syrian conflict means more people will die in a country in which there has already been unnecessary death and carnage. Some TV viewers, though, will open cans of beer and cheer.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.