Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I guess I'm the dissenting view here.

Fangoria's review of The Cabin in the Woods ends by telling us that horror fans will absolutely love the film, something I've found to be true with my horror fan friends. Certainly, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and will likely pick up the DVD. The review also tells us that some reviewers will mistakenly call it a "horror spoof," when it's really not. Let's be honest, it is pretty funny though with plenty of extended comedy bits. I agree that it's not spoofing or making fun of the genre. But, let's also be honest about this: it's really not a horror movie. It's more like a sporadically frightening comedic fantasy. It's definitely very clever and well worth seeing, but let's not get carried away with comparing it to the great horror films because, while it's pretty great, it's still not a horror film. Or, at least, it's not horrific.

Most of the reviews I've seen thus far have gone out of their way to avoid discussing the main "secret" of the movie. The problem is that's also the whole premise of the film, so it's hard to discuss The Cabin in the Woods at all in any serious way without disclosing its secret. Here's what I'm going to do: I will openly discuss the whole movie, including secrets, after the following picture. If you do not want the "secret" given away, stop reading at this point
Sexy girl about to make out with a stuffed wolf's head.
Okay, Cabin in the Woods is about four college friends who go to a creepy, old cabin in the woods for vacation. They consist of the brainy, virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly), the alpha male athlete Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his slutty girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), the brainy love interest Holden (Jesse Williams), and the stoner comedic relief Marty (Fran Kranz, who steals the film). If this setup sounds totally familiar, it should. The movie is more more self-aware and arch than it lets on at first. Unfortunately, once it informs the audience that the filmmakers know just how cliche all of this is, it doesn't stop letting us know for about an hour. It's more annoying than Scream in that way.

See, (and this is where you should not be reading if you haven't seen the movie), a shady, high-tech, governmental organization is manipulating everything that is happening inside the cabin from a bunker below, which includes using hormones and other drugs to manipulate the kids into being more virginal, slutty, brainy, alpha male, or foolish. Why? Well, okay, I won't give that away, although it's worth noting that everything does make sense in the end in a way that's pretty satisfying and more than a bit Lovecraftian. The point is, while we're watching the kids go through standard horror movie plot mechanics, the underground bunker is also watching them and commenting upon those plot twists. In other words, it's really fucking meta.

A bit too meta. I spent the first hour of the film really wishing I could be engaged by the storyline, but unable to do so because of all the cutaways to the N.A.S.A. types in the bunker. Most of their scenes were pretty funny- there's a great bit in which they're all betting on what monster will attack and kill the kids- but it's hard to be scared when the movie keeps pulling you out of its main storyline to remind you how cliche that storyline is, and to subtly mock the idea of being scared by this sort of thing. I mean, we all know that certain horror movies can be totally idiotic in their plot points- why don't the kids ever listen to the creepy old local who warns them not to go into the woods? Why do they always split up and make it easier for them to be picked off one-by-one? But, you know, one way to address the problem of cliches is to use them and comment on them frequently, while another would be just not to use them at all. 

Now, okay, to be fair, this movie is really not as annoying as Scream for one good reason- the commentary on the cliches, in this case, comes wrapped up in a serious storyline that the movie commits to wholeheartedly. As the Zed Word review puts it: "the meta-story is not delivered with that dull post-modern sense of ironic detachment. The Cabin in the Woods commits to its world and its story. It has heart (and plenty of guts to go along with it)." Okay, fair enough, and totally accurate. If you're familiar with the work of Joss Whedon, who wrote an produced, this isn't a surprise- Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also a commentary on horror conventions, but a totally serious work of storytelling in itself. Whedon commits to his imaginative worlds and the dude really is a cut above the average fanboy.

The problem is that he's a really funny guy too. The main storyline, in which zombies of dead frontier fundamentalists stalk and kill the kids gets scary at times, and we understand that they're always in genuine peril, but it's still a little bit too funny. Then, in the third act (and, oh god yes, does this film have three very clear-cut acts), the shit really hits the fan in a series of scenes that will have horror fanz jizzing (or jilling) in their pants. It is very clear that these guys are serious fans of the genre themselves as there are plenty of inside baseball references. But it's also a hell of a ride. For me, the third act payoff made the movie, while the first two acts verged on killing it.

No surprise that the slut was my favorite character.
My advice would be this: the first and second acts should have been compressed into one act, while the third should have been a full hour of the movie. That would have been mindblowing. Also, while I'm okay with horror movies made by horror fans, the market is totally saturated with them in the post-Tarantino years. I often wonder why so many horror movie reviews laud this fact: "Don't worry- this one was made by real horror fans!" Um, great, but The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were made by filmmakers with a more developed and well-rounded sense of art, life, and the world than just being really up on the genre- I'd choose them over Hatchet in a second. Furthermore, I sometimes like horror that's a bit clueless about anything but scaring us. Fear is best when it's primal and subconscious and, to get to that place, you have to turn off the self-awareness. Horror filmmakers need to stop thinking of horror films as being movies first and foremost and start drawing from the horrifying world outside of movies. That way they can get back to scaring the living shit out of us.

Don't get me wrong- this is one of the smartest and funniest movies I've seen in some time. And genre fans will love it. But, I feel like people going to see horror movies do want to be scared, and so that's the main question. No, it's not scary for the most part. Funny and thought-provoking, but not scary.


  1. I don't think there's anything wrong with subverting an audience's want to be scared to show them the stuff they're scared off is so cliche and formulaic, which is what I think this movie wanted to do. To be fair, the movie begins with the "puppet masters" and their water-cooler talk, so I think it sends a pretty clear message from the start that it's not going to be scare-fest. Yet, could this movie succeed without being marketed as a scary movie? I don't think so.

  2. I don't think there's anything wrong with them doing it that way either. For the record, I thought it was a really good movie. I was just a bit misled by some of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes into thinking it was going to be a scary movie, when it's really not going for that.

    It's weird- the commentary on watching people get killed on screen reminded me a lot of Funny Games, a movie I loathed. But here there was enough to sink my teeth into that I wound up both loving the movie and really wishing it had been a scarier one.