The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Drew Goddard)

I see it all now, it’s a plot. A plot — all those slasher movies. You know the ones. You don’t even have to watch them to become a scholar of their tropes. It’s one of the worst things about American pop culture’s frequent love of pandering to 18-34s. In The Cabin in the Woods writers Joss Whedon, who’s participated in lots of adolescent mythmaking over the last twenty years, and Drew Goddard offer up their take with a sometimes clever, usually smug parody? tribute? deconstruction? of the slasher film, positing that all those teenagers fucking and dying out in the boondocks are the result of something as mundane as a bunch of schmoes gathered around screens in an office building, dictating who dies when and how. It’s basically MTV’s Fear only with people getting decapitated, or The Blair Witch Project sans subtlety and insight. At least, part of it is — the part with Soultaker-like characterizations and the sexuality-shaming typical of horror films, here appropriated ironically, but that’s where it gets confusing. How far can irony go when there’s no real depth to it?

The Cabin in the Woods is a film that seriously undercuts the inherent humor of its own silly, puzzle-like premise by then insisting that these glorified technical directors sipping coffee and killing teens are really doing it for the benefit of some Cthulhu-like controlling body with the capability of ruining the planet and all of us that lives in/on it. The finale, which leaves us with the two decent good kids smoking up and talking about how much better off the universe will be without humans, cuts out just before you 90% expect one of them to mention how tipis are “better than houses in a lot of ways.” Let me be clear: much as a lot of the political oversimplicity of The Hunger Games is excused because it’s so completely right about the idiocy and tragedy of the Iraq War, I can’t dislike The Cabin in the Woods or object to its signature implication: that horror movies and reality TV are both the conception and result of unimaginable evil. And there’s considerable wit and playfulness here — a literal Pandora’s Box of monsters is brilliantly visualized, and the image of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins so calmly going about this morbid business, chatting about the weekend and their kids and the weather while initiating vile dismemberment plans, is practically inspired enough to have been a Kids in the Hall skit. Which would have been a lot shorter.

There’s a whole lot of external dross here — adding exposition to a bad movie doesn’t make it automatically funny, it just overwhelms it and satisfies no one, though some of the bending over backward here to explain clichés is amusing. Problem is, this so frequently resembles a typical horror film that all it can really do is disappoint fans of the genre and those who come in for something different. Whedon and Goddard juggle satirical irreverence that vacillates between admirably goofy and simply flippant (the major problem I personally have with the horror genre overall, and not really any better here) with their obligation to create a popular wide cinema release. In the end, Cabin is just as rote and over-explained as the movies it’s supposedly making fun of by the finale, throwing in some unnaturally stilted dialogue and lots of Whedon smarminess that hampers the comic possibilities. There’s whimsy, I suppose, but it’s all rather joyless, like a “funny” commercial for Geico or Skittles or something. When the story hits a literal (invisible) wall, is one’s reaction supposed to be eye-rolling at the half-Inception half-Tarkovsky ridiculousness of the idea? Or is this part of the story the part we’re supposed to laugh at? Or is it the real story?

Cabin clearly intends to posit its convoluted idea as an invasion of doom, destruction and the almighty Lucifer into the rational world as we know it, but it doesn’t seem to expect its audience to have any further affection toward or belief in its characters than if they were the flat cardboard creations we know from other films. It all seems too easy somehow; rather than a movie about five people in search of an exit, it’s an exercise in phoniness. In order for the film to do what it seems to be trying to do, it would have to introduce teenage characters who are not capable of being shoehorned into stereotyped roles; the marijuana-stoked wisdom of Fran Kranz’s part notwithstanding, these kids seem tired and artificially ordinary from the beginning. Aside from the bottom dropping out into the world’s end at the conclusion, we’re never given any serious reason to care, which gives the lie to the pretension that this is all any kind of a challenge to the horror trope or ideal. I have no doubt that all the half-baked pseudo-intellectual bullshit all over the script and finished film is partially the point — Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz was too long because action movies themselves are too long, right? — but that creates the problem for me. Because I have no underlying affection for horror films whatsoever, an “affectionate” parody is less fun for me than an outright vicious one would be.

On the offchance you’re not sick to death of me invoking it (I haven’t done so much at this blog but if only you knew me in real life…), an example of a film that does what Goddard and Whedon are trying to do correctly is Mars Attacks!, which is also populated with nonsensical characters because it’s an attack on the laziness of the films it’s targeting (and also of American news coverage of foreign wars). Or Brain Candy, the Kids in the Hall feature, which took the time to create memorable and even somewhat believable characters while also functioning as an unmitigated attack on American attitudes toward emotional health. Interestingly enough, both of those quite sophisticated films were panned by critics, at least in the U.S., whereas The Cabin in the Woods was hailed as a brilliant twist on a familiar structure. But because it is neither fully engaged in its brutality like Mars Attacks! nor ultimately wise and impassioned like Brain Candy, I cannot see how it truly functions as anything but a superficial, glorified Saturday Night Live skit.

All of this makes the film sound worse than it is, maybe because any review of any horror movie here is bound to make it sound worse than it is. The good parts are quite entertaining. Much of the humdrum administrative stuff is quite funny and handled more strongly than the slasher bits (bits, oh dear). And as the film presses on, it takes more genuinely unexpected turns than most of its brethren; it’s a bit like a wildly overextended update of “It May Look Like a Walnut,” the episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show wherein Rob Petrie watches a midnight sci-fi picture then believes aliens who resemble Danny Thomas have stolen his thumbs. That episode inexplicably ends with Rob and Laura doing aerobics in bed. Would that Cabin had somehow taken such a liberating, bizarre tactic. Instead it ends in essentially the same way that seemingly two thirds of all modern studio films have to end. I genuinely enjoyed not knowing where exactly this was headed, but it’s hard not to be disappointed with its final decision — the apocalypse is just so played by now, man.

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