by Eric Plaag and Matt Smith
Joss Whedon is the kind of guy who not only doesn’t play by the rules and conventions of genre filmmaking—he likes to expose their patent absurdity, too. I’ve followed his career loosely over the years, from his outstanding Buffy the Vampire Slayer film and television series to the more recent supervillian musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, always enjoying the way he infused the horror and superhero genres with a self-awareness and reflexive self-critique that was simultaneously hilarious and oddly disorienting. Perhaps Whedon’s best moment of excoriating rebelliousness came when he was asked to record the commentary for the Dr. Horrible DVD release—a contractual requirement he could not wiggle out of. Told that he must record something, Whedon concocted a commentary soundtrack set to music entitled Commentary! The Musical; as one might expect, it is filled with wry observations on the business of moviemaking and the absurdity of filmmakers having to reveal the scaffolding behind all of their creations. “Brilliant” is another word for it.
So, when Matt and I heard that Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods would be a horror film that puts a new twist on an old genre, we were both excited, even though we didn’t mention it to each other. Matt, after all, is a horror geek who I suspect thinks of me as someone who finds most horror films a little distasteful. For my part, I assumed that Matt might not take too kindly to someone like Whedon blasting all of those horror films and filmmakers he admires so much. And yet here we are, both admiring Cabin in the Woods for what it does and doesn’t do, and now we’re ready to talk about it, about its flairs and flaws, and about whether the horror genre has anything left to say now that Cabin in the Woods has finished with it.
ERIC: One of the things I found really surprising during the first third of the film is that Whedon could begin with a conventional set-up with the stock, archetypal characters of a slasher flick and yet not immediately derail the film into a cascade of clichés and annoyingly winking, self-referential yuks. Instead, Cabin in the Woods offers us five characters—the virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly), the pothead Marty (Fran Kranz), popular jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), brainy hunk Holden (Jesse Williams), and slutty Jules (Anna Hutchison)—who plan a weekend getaway from college at a cabin allegedly belonging to Curt’s uncle. Along the way, they encounter a creepy gas station proprietor straight out of a Scooby Doo mystery, who—in keeping with the tropes of the genre—warns them off from the cabin. The crew ignores him, of course, and wander up through a mountain tunnel and some dark woods to the place we know should seal their doom. They explore the cabin, uncovering some of its secrets and idiosyncrasies, including a two-way mirror between two of the bedrooms and a basement filled with strange and curious artifacts.
The twist here is that from the beginning, Whedon allows us to know that the cabin crew are part of an elaborate experiment of sorts, run by Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradly Whitford) in a vast, underground science lab. The teens are carefully surveilled and their environment meticulously controlled and manipulated. The cabin experiment is one of dozens of similar events being played out the world over, all to suit the requirements of a vague protocol demanded by an equally vague overseer. The mystery and tension, from the beginning, then, is not focused on whether the teens will survive or even how they will die their gruesome deaths. No, our concern here is for the grander plot underway beneath their feet.
The surprising result is that the choices the teens make evoke exactly the kinds of reactions that good horror movies used to inspire, and we are helped along in that tension by Marty, whose pot-induced haze provides the most clearheadedness that any of those teens will be able to muster. When one character hesitates over reading a Latin inscription in an old, creeptastic diary entry, Marty begs her not to read it for fear of what it might invoke—expressing exactly the thought floating through every audience member’s head at the moment and creating an awareness that Marty may be speaking to us just as much as he is trying in vain to speak to his friends. Similarly, Holden’s ambivalence over his discovery of the two-way mirror (which is normally hidden on the viewer’s side by a slaughter-filled painting) underscores the unsettled nature of the audience’s own voyeurism as consumers of horrific and sexual imagery. This choice between the horror of the painting and provocative sexuality that lies on the other side of the glass is no accident, and the triple layers of voyeurism at work here—Holden watching Dana, Sitterson and Hadley watching them, us watching it all—immediately set up the savvy viewer to understand, half an hour in, that this is not your conventional horror film. What did you make of this, Matt?
MATT: I think what you might be driving at here are not generic conventions, per se, but more along the lines of a very specific type of horror film: the teenagers in a cabin picture. You can fit a lot of different sub-genres into the discussion if you keep it broad enough, and that’s exactly what Whedon and director/co-writer Drew Goddard do. The “clever” aspect of the film’s twist is that it isn’t clever at all, and not even much of a twist. As you mentioned, it’s blatant at half an hour in (and even in its opening scenes) what is going on. The only questions are the wheres and hows. I really liked that.
The film doesn’t turn genre convention on its head as much as it does something that Whedon did so well with the bulk of overseeing Buffy the Vampire Slayer: he deploys the genre against itself and exposes the ways in which the form has grown stagnant and underdeveloped. Now, I might take umbrage with some of his assertions, particularly in regard to some of the stupidity of the proceedings, but that doesn’t really make them any less true or worth discussing. In this manner, it’s a lot like Evil Dead 2, or, in an extreme example, Adam Green’s Hatchet and Hatchet II. Those films are full-blooded horror exercises in gore and excess, but are also critical of the genre as a whole. I think The Cabin in the Woods is really imaginative with the way it handles the tropes of blood and guts.
One of my favorite moments is toward the end when we finally get to see a Merman. I don’t love it because of the ironic payoff (although that’s also quite good), but because of the reference made earlier in the film when we learn that they’re a nightmare to clean up after. The killing of Hadley by the monster is a hoot because you’re expecting some very gruesome ripping and tearing, but true to Whedon-esque humor, the blood comes spraying out of the creature’s blow hole and gets all over everything. It’s layers of humor and horror and the undercutting of expectations the film does so well and that I really enjoyed.
Going back to Marty for a moment, I was struck by how amazingly well a stoner character like him was written in this movie. Whedon has a knack for creating well-meaning buffoons who are endearing and witty and are quicker to grasp on to what’s going on than even the heroes of the movie or TV show (think Xander in Buffy or Wash in Firefly), but I don’t think I even saw a guy like Marty coming. This is to say that he starts off as a typical stoner character, obsessed with weed and making munchies jokes, but as it turns out, it’s his pot which allows him to overcome the chemical manipulation of the company that has lured the teens into the cabin in the first place! As a result, he is immune to their traps and discovers the conspiracy against them very early on, vindicated by the time of his triumphant return so much that he becomes a co-main character, right alongside Kristen Connolly’s Dana. And this isn’t the only character who is something more than we expect. In fact, through the manipulation of central A/C systems and the release of various chemical agents, we are shown that the genre staples we are all familiar with are simple constructs of the performance which must be enacted ritualistically even if the teenagers themselves aren’t actually the embodiments of those performances.
ERIC: I’m not sure I agree with you entirely about the film’s handling of genre conventions. My horror film-watching pedigree is not up to speed with yours, of course, but I thought from the beginning that Whedon and Goddard were taking a particular swipe not so much at the cabin disconnected from civilization motif but instead at the raft of recent horror films focused on captive victims and the ways in which outside manipulators toy with and torture them in their prepared torture den (see, for example, the Saw and Hostel series, and even to some degree Turistas). In those films, we rarely see the victims exact a meaningful, agency-based vengeance. Usually, those (few) who survive do so through a frantic, chaotic means of escape for which the captors are not prepared, and any comeuppance for the captors is usually partial at best and certainly not systematic. In the worst examples, those victims who turn the tables become a morally ambiguous analog to their captors, sometimes using the same instruments of torture to sadistically secure their revenge. What we have in Cabin in the Woods, though–after the requisite frantic chaos and apparent resignation to hopelessness–are two characters who analyze their predicament, craft a strategy that turns the machinery of torture against their captors, and in a deft stroke of scripting that returns full agency to the film’s victims, ultimately choose a resolution full of moral clarity that is not among the stereotypically false choices presented to them by their head captor and (wo)man behind the curtain.
This can’t be an accident. Whedon has been quoted as saying that the film is a “loving hate letter” to the horror films (and “torture porn” in particular) of the past few years. Weary of “sadistic comeuppances” and “kids acting like idiots,” Whedon and Goddard intentionally crafted what they hoped would be a rejoinder to those conventions. So, yes, as you say they are turning the genre against itself, but I don’t think the target is what you suggest. Knowing that you’re a fan of those films that are widely referred to as “torture porn,” I wonder if you find their criticisms fair and warranted. More importantly, is their rejoinder to those kinds of films (and the horror industry in general for steering so sharply toward that subgenre in recent years) an effective one that can rescue horror cinema in general from those excesses and failings?
There’s also something very odd about the blood and gore at work here. As you’ve referenced in your writings on body horror, there is a certain viewer squeamishness that comes with the horrors of “torture porn” that isn’t usually evident when viewing most 1970s and 1980s-era slasher films and certainly not present in watching the creature features and monster flicks that preceded them. Yes, there’s lots of blood and gore at work here, but most of it seems to be the almost comical variety, as suggested by that hilarious scene with the Merman. There is little focus on the mechanics or processes of pain and suffering, arterial spray, or mangling. We don’t actually see the killer clown stab the armed officer, for example. We just know that it has occurred, and his creepy, persistent smile as he moves in for the kill is what is really terrifying. And yet when we do see full gore (the impaling by the unicorn, for example), it is swift, sudden, and then left permanently behind by the script. Each of these are memorable death scenes (even though only one involves a major character), but what makes them memorable is the humor and the unexpected nature of the payoff.
The single most memorable death in my horror-watching experience is Kevin Bacon’s character getting an arrow through the neck as he lies in bed in Friday the 13th. The entirety of this murder–from the moment Jason’s hand is on Bacon’s head until the scene cuts away–lasts nine seconds. It is sudden and unexpected, as well as bloody and wince-inducing (not to mention being enough to make one look under one’s bed for the next six months before going to sleep), but it is also just enough to evoke real horror mixed with a certain amusement that his character just may have deserved what he had coming. Horror, like humor, works best when it takes us by surprise, not when it lingers on the mechanisms and instruments behind its functionality. I would argue–as I’m guessing Whedon and Goddard would–that most horror films of the past 20 years have either forgotten that or don’t understand that. Cabin in the Woods recaptures that understanding and demands that we pay attention to and honor this cardinal rule, both as viewers and storytellers.
MATT: I think the digs taken at so-called “torture porn” films are much more subtle than those taken at the teenagers/slasher genre. After all, the captive torture-based films are a sub-genre of the slasher overarch, so this makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that Whedon/Goddard’s use of the typical teens in a cabin plot helps if they were indeed aiming to skewer current horror film norms. Yes, there is an increase in brutality and gore, and yes there is an increased emphasis on the control/submission relationship. That does not mean, however, that comical amounts and varieties of blood and guts must be an inherent commentary on the gore-hound wet dreams only some films lumped in with the “torture porn” pejorative actually contain. The problem is that most critics of the horror genre’s current state, and from what I’ve read this includes Whedon, have usually not even bothered to see most modern horror films, particularly those which they seek to criticize as being pointless endeavors or, as you have mentioned, excessively gory (i.e. – not worth their time).
What Cabin in the Woods does get right about the sub-genre, however, is how boring and tedious it can become. Which is perhaps why the two films which currently comprise the Hatchet series have been so well-received. In those films we are given a typical set-up (a group of teens goes off into a supposedly haunted swamp and are killed off one by one by the deformed supernatural redneck monster) that is then played out to the extreme, with much more bloodletting than could ever occur in reality. Or even a conceivable slasher flick. The genre, despite what Cabin in the Woods would have you believe via its critique, is dependent on the red stuff, and gobs of it.
Here I want to conclude by thinking a bit on H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories influence Cabin in the Woods far more than “torture porn” or slashers, or any other genre or sub-genre of horror, at least conceptually. The elder gods underneath the control room is a move of true brilliance, though if you’re familiar enough with Buffy the Vampire Slayer you’ll know exactly what Whedon’s up to with this part of the film. He’s obsessed with the idea that ancient evil is just waiting for its turn to rule the world, placated for the time being or temporarily defeated. Though the ending does not see writhing, squid-like ancient ones rising up from the earth (the hand was a cool enough touch, actually) it was refreshing to finally see one of these flicks end with the end of everything. If you’re someone who hates when no one survives a movie, then get ready to flip out, because no one makes it out of this one. You, me, the neighbors, and certainly not the characters in the movie. Lovecraft’s influence is more than just the monsters, though, and can be seen in the way the final two surviving teens, Dana and Marty, seem to behave like crazy persons, but ultimately give in to their madness enough to just let the big bad thing happen. The world ends, and they are probably crazy to let it happen. Yet it does, boom, bang, slam, the end.
I really really liked this movie. I think it works no matter what end of the horror genre you think it’s skewering. Maybe that’s the charm of it, and why it has reached such a large number of people. Its reputation will no doubt continue to grow once it hits the download/rental market. It’s a smart, funny and by turns chilling entry into the horror cannon. And it includes a great nod to Hellraiser. What’s not to love?