Dissecting Cabin In The Woods – Why horror is important

It’s two for two in 2012 for the geek ubermensch, Joss Whedon. Obviously, his take on the AVENGERS has dominated this summers blockbusters. Now, a week after his superhero gigantosaur has been unleashed in DVD form, comes this years second Whedon project to the store racks and download queues the world over.

Filmed in 2009, but shelved up the arse by the financial crisis, CABIN IN THE WOODS was finally released in cinemas earlier this year. Directed by Drew Goddard, produced by Whedon (who shares a writing credit with the director), no one really knew anything about it, apart from the breadcrumbs dropped by enthusiastic previewers, unable to explain why it’s so amazingly fantastic because knowing would ruin the experience. The title and a brief synopsis suggested a typical, EVIL DEAD style teenagers-spend-a-weekend-in-a-log-cabin-and-accidentally-unleash-a-terrible-evil-They-have-sex-or-get-high-and-are-killed-off-one-by-one experience. The marketing, however suggested a more unconventional rubick’s cubed, multi faceted mystery.

Indeed, the film is about a group of college students embarking on a holiday jaunt to a creepy log cabin, deep in the middle of fuck knows where. But from the very opening scenes it’s clear the horrors that are to come been planned, organised and sanctioned by a powerful cabal, staffed by likeable, sometimes quite capable, office drones who hog a large amount of the screen time.

Naturally for a Whedon script, the dialogue is the best thing about it. His exposition alone is expertly crafted, naturalistic, comedic prose. The universe as we know it is often inverted by a Joss Whedon script, as you can’t wait for the action, the mayhem, the blood and the explosions to stop just so you can go back to two people in a room, talking.

And that’s where you should stop if you haven’t seen it. Really…. Because, while I generally quite liked it, I have some very specific issues with elements of the films finale. Read on and the mystery will be killed. A major part of the fun of this film is the discovery, and that in itself is a worry. How much did my initial positive reaction depend on surprise factor alone? Whilst this is important, shouldn’t a film be able to stand up to repeat viewings? In this film, the surprise factor is a key element in an audiences appreciation, depending on how you chose to interpret the intended multiple subtexts lurking under the floorboards.

Yes, I feel there is a clear subtext, quite a clever one in fact. And the story is full of ingenious little touches that shore up the scripts unspoken assumptions. Yet by servicing this subtext, I feel the film makers have sacrificed the potential to make a really effective, original horror film. For this is a very smart film that plays expertly with our genre expectations. Our higher intellectual needs are well provided for, but isn’t horror also about lower primordial fears? Something creepy and disturbing that hits you at a subconscious level? Whilst both can be serviced by the same story, in this case, the desire to shore up the films implied intellectual gag negates it’s potential as a truly effective horror film. It’s a fun film, a great, ghost train, spook-o-blast experience. But for me, the execution of certain… lets call them design elements, is a little lacking. I shall explain, but I need to go deep into ruinous spoilerage to do so.

I managed to go a whole year without spoiling the film for myself before I got a chance to watch it. Do yourselves a favour and stop reading if your still on the other side of the CABIN IN THE WOODS experience.

Still here? Excellent. I shall continue.

So, we have five bright kids, manipulated by a powerful multinational organisation, whose authority appears to be above and beyond even the US government. There task is to present five teenagers at a certain time, once a year, in order to facilitate a sacrificial ritual to appease the ancient evil gods who preceded humanity. Unless the ritual is carried out to very specific instructions, the gods will be angry and humanity will suffer a slow, agonising extinction level event. The teenagers are induced into acts of stupidity and lewdness, in order to sate the gods sick desires and to humiliate and punish those a society secretly ruled by a diabolical pantheon, consider guilty by virtue of their youth. The nature of the punishment and execution is chosen by the victims themselves, by means of a partially controlled accident. Meanwhile, the office drones and agents responsible for the implementation of this annual program watch on from their subterranean control rooms, taking bets of the nature of the supernatural entities unleashed. The menagerie of creatures the organisation has collected is an amazing assortment of just about every beast, ghost, demon and entity from the history of western horror films.

It’s clear when Whedon and Goddard unleash this infernal safari upon both the audience and the on screen corpses-to-be, they are indulging themselves with a grand celebration of horror in all it’s gruesome flavours. Whilst the first half of the film is an inversion of slasher film cliches, the second half is a top 1000 of horrors greatest fiends. So we have stuntmen-in-a-furry suit werewolves, CGI ghosts, Raimi-esque Deadites flying on wires, Murnaun Nosferau, cartoonish goblins, giant snakes, unwrapped mummies and Pennywise clowns. And at one key moment, an entity with sawblades stuck in his head, fondling a spherical puzzle box. Yep, no prizes for nailing that one.

The final act of the film is a pure ghost train, an R rated Scooby Doo ride. And anyone with a passing interest in cinema-horrifica will find themselves playing spot the homage. Never intended to be just a SCARY MOVIE style piss take, the film is a glorious love letter to an entire genre and its hard not to get wrapped up in the finales Karo syrup drenched cornucopia.

Hard, but not impossible. Whilst it’s good bloody fun that gleefully subverts genre conventions, it’s obsequious replication of tried, tested and, dare I say it, boring monster conventions, feels uninspiring and lazy. Perhaps I’m being unfair, as this clearly was a labour of love that I enjoyed. But the most effective horrors in the film were all original creations. The little ballet dancer with a face of teeth, the Buckner family and that other strange brood, the doll masked family, seen briefly on a video monitor casually pouring petrol over a gaggle of tied up employees. Original horrors that creep us out and pleasantly disturb. One of my favourite scenes in the film is when the two survivors accidentally find themselves inside a transparent storage cube, rolling into the facilities collection of supernatural terrors. They stop and come face to face with an entity exuding a quiet, controlled malevolence. Figuring out they have been manipulated into this situation, Dana (played by Kristen Connolly) rages against their jailers, throwing the weight of her anger against the glass between herself and the demon right in front of her. It’s a superbly acted (yes, ACTED) scene, especially by the guy playing the demon, who just looks right through Dana, quietly assessing her. It’s a fantastic moment, but one that is marred by the obvious homage to Pinhead from the Hellraiser films. Every other film making element in this scene works it’s ass off to give you a shivery, creepy thrill. This is almost totally negated by the near parodic nature of the ‘homage’. Had the film makers given us something unexpected and unrecognisable, the scenes effectiveness would have been greatly improved. Fear of the unknown is the key component in suspense. Familiarity, safety, comfort and reassurance are poor companions to horror, fun though the film may be.

But what’s wrong with fun in a horror film? Nothing, when done right it can be a triumph. The best example is Evil Dead II, which for my first decade of alcohol abuse was my go to hangover VHS of choice. Raimi got the mix between horror and fun just right, showing us unexpected, freaky weird creations rampaging around wood and log cabin, dragging the audience by the hair on a crazy thrill ride.

So why is it so important to me that I get creeped out and disturbed. Isn’t real life bad enough? Indeed it is, and that is the very point of horror films. They’re an indulgence in fear, rather than an unwanted terrifying intrusion. A controlled, managed, release of tensions. A desirable stress test for the psyche.

Critics of horror films normally assume the audience is expected to root for the evil guy, the hacks at the Daily Mail often branding such films as sick, mind warping filth. Luckily for me, I’m not Christopher Tookey, the Mail’s rather useless film critic who infamously passed off SCANNERS, Cronenberg’s classic film about psychic phenomena and corporate espionage as ‘that film about exploding heads’. Which is literally incorrect, as there is only one exploding head near the beginning and a hell of a lot of story after that singular event, Wrong, Tookey, wrong. What they also miss is that by facing up to blood, death and mayhem we are finding a safe release to explore concepts of our own mortality. These film aren’t about people getting chopped up, its about the audience putting themselves in the place of the victim. Safely assessing threat levels is a primordial urge, an important part of our psychological development. It’s the same reason we have roller coaster rides, bungee jumping or skiing. No one throws themselves down a mountain strapped onto two planks of wood because they’re looking forward to a nice, hot, cup of drinking chocolate back at the lodge (as you can tell, I have never been skiing…).

Horror film nearly always feature impossible or incredibly unlikely situations. Safe in the knowledge we will never have to fight off a Mayan death serpent, we can enjoy the process of exploring our own physical and spiritual limits on this planet. Testing our boundaries, exploring our fight or flight responses without risk of lasting harm. Some see the popularity of horror films as an example of Freud’s theory of the Death Drive, a subconscious desire to revert back to an inanimate state, which for us means death. I’m not sure about that, but I do think its important that we prepare ourselves for the hardships, pains and sadness that latter life brings us. Perhaps that explains the popularity of horror films with teenagers, and the opposite trend applying to those of us on the wrong side of thirty.

One of my favourite explanations is one asserted by Stephen King. He believes horror stories are an indulgence of our darkest desires, the things we keep locked up in the basement. We feed these desires with the occasional symbolic catharsis to stop them from breaking out.

The reasons are many and varied. But the simplest one may be this. Controlled fear gives you a great buzz. A legal high, a fantastic distraction from the mundane. It’s not for everyone, and everyone has different tolerance levels. But the desire to enjoy being scared is hardwired into our DNA. As I mentioned earlier, watching a scary film serves a primordial need.

One thing is certain, it’s not real life horrors we crave. I can’t stand the sight of real blood, and after the last 10 years I’ve had my fill of real life horror on the news. But a good, controlled scare is not a sign of mental illness or proof of sick sadism. It’s a comforting pillow, preparing us, readying us, steeling our nerves, giving us an option, giving us control. I would love to press a big STOP button to halt the events in Syria, but I can’t. Halting this real life nightmare seems impossible at this point and that’s what really terrifies and traumatises. How can any film be truly harmful for me when I can just eject the DVD, shut my eyes or run out of the cinema?

So this is why horror films are important. We crave and need the occasional fright to jolt our systems and test our limits. And for the film maker, they provide an opportunity to explore some very deep and dark places of the human psyche, irresistible subject matter for many or our storytellers. There’s nothing like a good scare. But the familiar ghosts, goblins and werewolves of CABIN IN THE WOODS? Not so scary…

I cannot shake the feeling that a greater telling of this story would have existed if we saw the Guillermo Del Toro version. Now, that’s a man who adores monsters, and what a treat a gallery of his original creations may have been! Instead, I find Whedons and Goddards imagined supernatural bestiary a bit of a disappointing who’s who of horror, like the Disney-ish fairy tale facsimiles used in the SHREK films. A further let down is the depiction of their ultimate monster, the classic big bad, who makes a rather uninspiring entrance at the films conclusion. The whole story pivots on the Elder Gods, such terrible monstrosities to whom humanity is bound in an annual sacrificial pact. What delightful horrors these gargantuan titans of terror could be! And yet at the end, when they rise to destroy humanity, all we see is a giant human hand. For me, this was a crushing disappointment, an inversion on a Pythonesque foot. In terms of Grand Guignol spectacle, this is clearly lacking. What were they thinking? Well, the subtext, for one.

On my first viewing, I thought the films subtext was little more than a celebration of the genre, inverting their conventions and deluging us with a horde of well executed, yet very, very familiar beasties. However, the films real subtext is a bit more cheeky. The Elder Gods who insist on blood and boobies? That’s the audience, that’s us (well, more THEM than me). The fanboy nation, baying for mayhem and screaming in rage on internet forums if they don’t get exactly what they want. At home, in the cinema, on the online forum. A cause célèbre amongst the genre crowd is the increasing PG 13-ification of Hollywood’s output. Horror films are now child friendly affairs. Bloodless. Breastless even (oh, the horror!). And lo, how the Elder Gods, the ones who came before raged in there fury! “Horror films were better in the 80’s, goddamit!” How dare the providers of the blood and boobs not, well, provide! Damn the youth and Hollywood for making such teen friendly productions! But what of the office drones in the film, labouring heroically to complete the ritual for their demanding, troublesome overlords? Substitute these workers for directors, writers, producers or the rest of the rank and file of Hollywood and you can see a theme developing. Further proof? Whedon and Goddard based Sitterson and Hadley (the main protagonists amongst the ‘puppet masters’) upon themselves, underlining the link between our cinematic amateurs and mid level managers from the ritualistic homicide department.

So, the angry gods are the audience, placated by the murdering son’s of bitches in Tinsel Town. A bit unfair? Maybe. But then, look at the success of the loathsome Piranha 3DD franchise. Blood and boobs in glorious stenography. Christ, give me a break… But these films exist, they have a market. A reaction, perhaps, to the aforementioned ratings capped approach to horror films. And just for fun, here’s CABIN IN THE WOODS. A loving tribute and perhaps a gentle nudge in the ribs towards your average horror fan, rising up from the depths of the internet, giant hand extended to the sky to bring ruin down upon thee, puny, sell out film maker! If that’s not a symbolic catharsis, I’ll cannibalise my own feet! And that’s why the monsters, including the one that’s supposed to be us, are so recognisable.

All good witty fun. But by servicing the gag, by using unimaginative depictions of horrors greatest hits and by turning a mirror on the audience, the films impact is minimised. Funny, clever and witty it may be, this wonderfully crafted, meta-textual film is ultimately let down by appealing more to our intellectual needs whilst neglecting the chill factor. It’s a real shame, because the film makers came close to creating an excellent scary horror film about horror films. Instead, we have an enjoyable and fun monster mash that, aside from a few glorious moments, is unfortunately lacking in bite. Those seeking a medicinal dose of good scares need look elsewhere. Then again, I saw the film twice in two days and I’ll probably watch it again tonight. I guess my original question regarding multiple viewings is irrelevant. A film this well made is always a joy to consume, even after the suspense and mystery from the first, uninformed viewing has passed, and even if there is a greater telling of this script living on in my nightmares.

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