Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods - Drew Goddard (2011)

  1. The Cabin in the Woods is a brilliantly entertaining movie about horror directed by Drew Goddard, one of the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and produced by Joss Whedon.
  2. The film opens in a government facility: two weary bureaucrats (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) bellyache about their home life as they prepare for a mysterious event. At this point you probably felt like you were watching a high-quality HBO comedy-drama. That's because Whitford and Jenkins have been in every TV show you've ever liked, from Six Feet Under to Ally McBeal. There is something immensely reassuring about their presence. Remember that word 'reassuring'.
  3. The poster shows the cabin as a Rubik's cube. It's a puzzle for genre fans and spotting the references is part of the fun. So, the teenagers from A Nightmare on Elm Street get in the RV from The Hills Have Eyes and drive to the house from Night of the Living Dead through the forest from The Shining and encounter the zombies from Dawn of the Dead. And hey, where have I seen that merman before?
  4. The horror genre depends on fear of the unknown. Now, you're going to say, 'no, it depends on the fear of death.' But then look you're caught in this entertaining loop, do we fear death because it's unknown, or do we fear the unknown because it reminds us of death? Have fun with that one.
  5. You may have noticed that what you learnt about the nature of events at the cabin short-circuited your capacity for the fear of the unknown. You knew exactly what was controlling those events, from the beginning of the film. But by then you'd also probably understood that it wasn't really a horror film. Unless you write for the Guardian film blog, in which case you somehow managed to hopelessly miss the point.  None of this is a secret, after all the film's title is a parody of a horror title. 
  6. There's something nerdy going on here. The geeky idea from Douglas Adams via Terry Pratchett (and, yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is what if the magical required administration? And what if its administration was handled with a level of competence comparable to all other forms of human affairs? Wouldn't that be weird?
  7. Conspiracy theories are paradoxically reassuring. The thought of powerful forces at work behind the scenes, is way more comforting, more patrician and more American, than the idea of no powerful forces at work behind the scenes. 
  8. Most horror films take a kind of fear and make it manifest. So you might say that The Shining is 'about' the murderous impulses contained within every family, Drag Me To Hell could be 'about' bulimia, Black Swan the psychic collapse of a neurotic type-A personality. This film has a vending machine filled with fear of every flavour. That's because it's a film 'about' fear itself.
  9. Jenkins and Whitford's characters establish a betting floor in the facility. The thing that, according to all the computer models never happens, happens. Those reassuring people that you thought had it under control turned out not to have it so under control. Sound familiar at all?
  10. Fear is a product of culture, so were that culture to collapse, all of those familiar things you were afraid of simply would not exist any more. Well might we look at the ghosts and buzz-saw wielding zombies with something approaching wistfulness. They are the known unknowns, and they are so much more appetising than the unknown unknowns which lie just down the road. It might even be that they were cultural artefacts designed to distract us from the genuinely terrifying spectres of environmental disaster and global economic collapse that would freak the entire population the hell out, if only we stopped eating the pizza of pop culture for long enough to think about them.


  1. Thanks, I ignored this release because of the stereotypes I guess, but may check it out now.

    Do you only review films you would recommend us watch? If not, maybe an out of ten score could help us quickly grasp your opinion? You know, because we're so busy emailing videos of turnips to the art director sat next to us.

    Look forward to more reviews,

  2. This is a hell of a fun movie that features twists that got better and better as the film went on. It’s crazy that horror films can be this fun and entertaining just by smart and witty writing. However, it won’t last for too long so we might as well enjoy it while Whedon and Goodard are around. Good review Gordon.

  3. @stevie: The 10-point review reviews all kinds of films. And no, you just have to read the whole thing.

    (Is that you Brother Stevie?)

  4. What's interesting about Cabin in the Woods is the way it both succeeds and fails as a horror film and the ambiguity of purpose by which it does so. The blatantly cliche title and traditional "set-up" of "fuckable teens haunted in the woods" is neutered from the outset with the hilariously banal opening scene between the two middle-ages bureaucrats. The deconstruction begins at the beginning, lest anyone think they are watching something that actually intends to be scary.

    The film functions as a kind of paean to the mechanics of horror film-making while at the same time critiques the genres moral worth. Ultimately and fundmanetally, the movie explores the psychological mechanics of horror--the way the genre satiates perverse aspects of our psychology--and, in the metaphysics of the film, keeps more uncontrollable, destructive subterranean forces at bay. Interestingly, this containment of id-like emotions is viewed as both necessary AND immoral, a tension articulated in the arguments that occur in the sterile NASA-like central command station. The new associate Truman says he is prepared for what he is about to assist in doing but his behavior and expression throughout the process betrays his real feelings and moral unease. The older "directors" show glimmers of feeling but, unlike Truman, have long resigned themselves to the necessity of their jobs and have even learned to take pride in it, a pride which both we and Truman shirk from. (Though we have the advantage of distance which allows us to laugh as we recoil.)

    When, at the film's end (spoiler alert), the heroes decide to sacrifice the world rather than fulfill there genre-proscribed narrative obligations, the move becomes, paradoxically, both quasi-nihilist and liberatory, emotionally and politically. But, before this climatic self-sacrifice, the long sequence of unrestrained horror-types run amok supply a cliche checklist, tacitly demanding future filmmakers to break free from the now-tired vocabulary of the genre's expected archetypes and tropes.

    On an even more meta-level the film is yet another demonstration of the "catalogue and re-mix" culture that is slowly coming to dominate a majority of both artistic expression and criticism (hence the pervasiveness of "best of lists" that get ever more ridiculously fine-grained:"top 50-Asian vampire films" "Top-20 90's-movies with great retro-soundtracks." etc.) If Scream was considered a meta-horror, openly acknowledging its structure within its own unfolding, that film still desired to provide what it told you it was serving. Cabin in the Woods takes the genre to a whole new level of abstraction, supplanting fear, the central emotion of any true horror film, with analysis and humor. It's a small triumph and also maybe the last horror film.