Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard, USA, 2012

(This review is completely full of spoilers)

Count me in the minority of dissenters. When I read a little about ‘Cabin in the Woods’ I was told that it would not be what I expected, so I stopped reading, thinking there would be cool twists and surprises. Well, any horror and science-fiction aficionado can hazard a guess where it’s going from the first five or ten minutes, so there are no twists or real surprises, just a pop-culture frown at horror and a bit of showboating.

As a supposed meta-horror about the genre, ‘Cabin in the Woods’ really isn’t very smart, and therein lays its offensiveness. Perhaps its hypocrisy starts with our first view of our main protagonist in her underwear. Drew Goddard’s camera maintains a sleazy eye in order to both capture the sexuality of our tediously hot young cast – except for the stoner token, of course – and to titillate the easily titillated in the audience: it seems confused where the line between those two poles are. Later, our “puppeteers” will urge on one of the characters to show her breasts, apparently to appease both them and the greater forces they are trying to appease, who apparently – apparently like the rest of us – want to see her goodies. In the reality of the film, this greater force is meant to be The Old Gods. Perhaps it is this that truly defines the film’s deep-rooted silliness. There’s a cabin in the woods which is a stunning bit of science-fiction-cum-supernatural construct where a super-secret government organisation has to send young Americans (and others from all over the world, it seems) so that they can unwittingly choose from a selection of horror scenarios and die by that choice. This is done to appease Old Gods, whom apparently want a reality TV horror show and who will otherwise destroy the world. Old Gods? Really? To my mind, it is only HP Lovecraft that can pull off The Old Gods scenario. Of course, the Old Gods are an allegory for the horror audiences’ appetites for blood, human sacrifice and, apparently, titties and derivative genre fare: it is to this that we must sacrifice young hot things to nasty horror genre deaths.
“You think you know the story,” challenges the tagline. Well, any alert sci-fi or horror will work it out early. The problem is that fanboy favourite Joss Whedon (scripting) and Drew Goddard (directing and co-scripting) are writing about, and perhaps unintentionally for, a perceived lowest common denominator horror fan and failing to capture the complex and sophisticated relationship that horror fans often have with the genre, one which they are able to engage with various levels of self-awareness. Worse, the scenarios meant to sate the Old Gods seem to be based upon a post-‘Scream’ American horror template, the kind where posters and covers for horrors simply have a line-up of young interchangeable, bland hotties. It is hard to take it as fun and perceptive, or seriously, when the breadth of its knowledge and feeling of the genre seems to be based upon television horror, franchise sequels and a story by HP Lovecraft it once heard about. So we get characters proposed somewhat un-ironically as ‘the virgin’, ‘the whore’, ‘the athlete’, etc. Anything ironic or tongue-in-cheek about this dissipates when the most sexually active of the victims truly is considered ‘a whore’, and the idea that, despite a little tweak here and there, young people really do like to fall into and act out their stereotypes. Adam Naman writes at Reverseshot:

In Drew Goddard’s new and extravagantly lauded Cabin in the Woods, a group of sharp, likeable protagonists are forcibly reduced to generic stereotypes within the film’s storyline to prove some larger point about pandering to audience expectations.

But that’s not exactly so: the characters start out as annoying types and then are reduced to cliches. Okay, so the ‘jock’ is also a successful academic, and for the most part it is “the puppeteers” trying to shoehorn their characters into stereotypes too, but our young victims really aren’t made that complicated; they are still as initially brattish as any other tediously teen-horror. And then, there is the fact that the sexually active woman (who is capable of giving tongue-sex to a mounted wolf-head) really is considered a “whore” in the apparent scheme of things, and the film does not seem to realise how offensive this may be and how it is playing into awful and ancient patriarchal prejudices and stereotypes. After all, it’s otherwise not clear why the “virgin” – which she isn’t – doesn’t qualify for “whore” status too. Is it because she’s less “slutty”?

There is the whiff of contempt for the audience about all this: despite the amusing asides to Asian Horror - which is ‘Cabin in the Woods’ best gag - and ‘The Shining’ and – most embarrassingly – ‘Hellraiser’, ‘Cabin in the Woods’ presents the most formulaic and worst of the American slashers as the go-to sub-genre to epitomise horror, and casts its “puppeteers” as slightly-bumbling and frequently obnoxious bunch who gamble on the lives of their victims, egg on the girl to take off her top just before she is murdered and treat all of this as a game. Oh, they protest that the gambling is just letting off steam, that it is a hard job etc, which is meant to explain their obnoxiousness, but that’s just waffle. Having a Token Black Character of Conscience doesn’t help either. Perhaps making horror films under Dimension Films and the Weinsteins – who always actively demand their quota of tits – creates the feeling that American horror film makers are just stupid manipulators playing to the Old Gods of the lowest common denominator, but it is presenting a woefully reductive vision of the genre, if not the studio process, and no amount of name-checking other work will elevate this true meta-horror. It maybe satirising the commercial end of horror, but it’s not quite doing anyone any favours either. A larger point being made? Well, It’s all bread-and-circuses is not an especially revelatory footnote. Like Michael Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’, ‘Cabin in the Woods’ represents horror and condemns its practitioners and product without understanding that they might understand what they are watching. The Weinsteins’ own ‘Scream’ revealed how horror satire can be both serious, respectful, nodding and amusing (although according to Peter Biskind’s book ‘Down and Dirty Picture’, they didn’t understand it one jot and almost tried to sabotage Wes Craven’s production at first). “Cabin in the Woods” references “The Shining” and “Hellraiser” without seemingly realising that those benchmark films were already deconstructing, reconstructing and setting horror precedents. A fan can look to a film like Norway's 'Fritt Vilt' to show how the genre can still provide solid genre characters and mayhem without resorting to apathy or crassness.

It is hard to truly treat ‘Cabin in the Woods’ as fun or think it has true respect for the audience when it wheels out the Sigourney Weaver of Exposition at the end to tell us what we already know. And is it even worth mentioning how stupid the big-red-button-that-unleashes-alll-the-beasties is? Maybe TV horror can get away with such shorthand, barely, but in true cinema, greatness is in the details and credibility. When you have to start making major allowances for such flaws, there is the hint that all may not as be as good as it looks. And to be tutted at by Whedon who gave soft horror one its most famous fan-boy, pop-culture wet dreams: a hot girl who fights vampires? One must look to films such as ‘Martyrs’ and ‘Let The Right One In’ and ‘Attack the Block’ to witness true engagement and dialogue with the horror genre. Or perhaps ‘The Monster Squad’ and anything by Joe Dante are better suggestions if you’re looking for the knowing but softer satirical stuff. Whedon has provided much better fun. Where is the love in ‘Cabin in the Woods’? Raiding the horror cabinet and tutting a bit isn’t good enough. ‘Cabin in the Woods’ is meta-horror for ‘Scooby-Doo’ fans. Surely the Old Gods themselves require better feeding than this?