dir: Drew Goddard
Five teenagers go camping, or to a secluded cabin in a forest, or a house by a lake. They go there to get wasted and have sex, generally, to incur the wrath of some truly conservative and reactionary forces embodied in a killer who then goes to work.
Something always arises from somewhere, at least, in the horror flicks of the last thirty years, and kills all or most of them one by one, in the most grisly of fashions.
There will be naughtiness, but not too much. There will be harsh language. There will be alcohol and drug consumption. And there will be blood, lots of blood. And boobies, but mostly blood.
There are a thousand movies like this, I’m not going to list any of them. You know the ones. You either love them with a passion, in which case you’re a sick fuck and you should be avoided, or you love them ironically, with hipster detachment, which possibly makes you worse than fifty Hitlers, or you hate them and have absolutely no time for them, yet know intimately of their existence.
But why? Not ‘why do they keep making these movies’, because money you’d think is the sole determinant, but why is or was the template adhered to so rigidly? Why do five teenagers, five American teenagers, always seem to find themselves in this predicament every other ‘week’ or so? You’d think that, considering the sheer quantity of movies, and their sequels with teen slaughter as the special of the day, even in the world these fictional teens inhabit, they’d be more terrified of these trips away than they would be of terrorism, chlamydia and paying off their student loans.
Genre blindness aside, they all keep seeming to make the same mistake eternally, endlessly, over and over again, like lambs to the meat grinder on a conveyor belt.
But what if there was a reason? What if there was a reason why specific American teens kept finding themselves in these flicks in this situation, and kept making the mistakes that these jerks always do, in order to be slowly whittled down until there’s only one virginal (or close enough to it) teen left? And she, or he, but usually she, would seemingly kill the bad guy until he was dead, but then moments just before the end credits would signal the next instalment, predicated upon the idea that you cannot kill what does not live.
And endlessly it would repeat. Perhaps through this repetition we would detect not only a pattern, but a cycle of renewal, and that this cycle was dependent on the slaughter itself, the ritualistic bloodletting. It would make the horror still horrible, but then it would make some kind of sense in this cold universe. Most horror is dependent on the reality that this isn’t a benevolent universe, that there isn’t some magical set of deities out there looking out for some of us, and that the brutish evil out there can’t really be stopped permanently, if ever, it’s only for a while.
It’s like having to shave all the time, legs or other bits, take your pick. The second you’ve shaved something, the second it starts growing back. So the very second evil is vanquished, that’s the second it starts gathering its forces to take another run at us.
This is a Mutant Enemy production, which means nothing to most people, but to the legions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fans, it means a fair bit. For me, well versed with the work of these two men, there are ways in which The Cabin in the Woods ultimately becomes a distillation of all those years of crafting meta narratives and geeky in-joke references with a healthy slab of gore and wry humour along the way.
This is not a radical revamping of the horror genre. This isn’t Scream, which spelled out the signposts and clichés of the genre as it enacted them. This feels more like a full stop at the end of a very long sentence, because it tries to encompass everything, everything that’s ever been done.
This is never going to stop more horror flicks being made, since they’re cheap to make and hordes of morons, like zombies themselves, stagger to the multiplexes in order to watch them whilst copping a feel and texting. At least for these chaps, though, being Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, it feels like they’ve poured in every fantasy or horror idea left over from the Buffy/Angel days, but now with added gore and swearing.
If it’s a skewering at all of the genre, it’s a somewhat affectionate one, but that doesn’t mean the flick is campy. There’s genre knowningness, as in one of the characters starts realising not only that they’re living out the conventions of a film, but that someone or something is manipulating them, but it’s still meant to be horrifyingly entertaining.
The overall architecture, though, is something to behold. I’ve seen enough reviews, and read enough admonitions to people exhorting them not to say too much about what’s actually going on. I’m adhering to it, in that I don’t think there’s a single genuine spoiler in this review, though I don’t think it matters. As ‘radical’ as much of this seems, it feels like something totally within the wheelhouse of the previously seen, the best and brightest of the genre. Especially, the previously seen bits of Buffy, especially the fourth season. Especially the fourth much hated season, just in case you didn’t catch that. And Amy Acker’s there, who now gets a role in anything Joss Whedon does, so good luck to all concerned.
As for the ‘main’ characters, they’re deliberately generic, because they have to be playing archetypes. They’re not horrible within or outside of that, but they’re meant to remind us of the thousands of similar teens who came and died before them.
Dana, Curt, Jules, Holden and Marty (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams and Fran Kanz) serve their purposes, and they’re meant to be exactly what they’re representing, which the flick goes over the top in labelling in case we didn’t get it, by literally having a sequence where they’re titled (as in this one’s the jock, this one’s the stoner, this one’s the promiscuous one etc). They drive into the wilderness in order to stay at someone’s cabin, and everything’s fine at first, because they don’t realise the long tradition of human sacrifice that they’re going to unwillingly become a part of. Then again, they never do.
Before they get there, they stop for gas at a service station, and the mean bastard attending there insults them and basically tells them they’re doomed. The ‘teens’ are insulted, and abuse the guy, which means these guys have never watched Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Hills Have Eyes or House of 1000 Corpses or a thousand other examples of what they shouldn’t do.
This guy, and I’m not talking about the actor, has a role to play. He is the harbinger, or should that be Harbinger!, the harbinger of doom. He is literally there to tell them they’re doomed, because their choosing to ignore his warnings is the ‘okay’ the universe needs to start fucking with them. “Don’t insult the locals” should be the first goddamn commandment in the horror movie bible.
And by universe, I probably mean the evil so-and-sos who are intending to rend these poor teens limb from limb. Should we care about them? I dunno. I generally ‘care’ about any character in a flick, as long as they’re not too annoying. I don’t like watching anyone die unless they’re really, really annoying. Really annoying characters are a horror film’s way of saying, “It’s okay to want them to die. Really” so we don’t have to be burdened with too much misplaced guilt. The characters here aren’t excessively annoying, but then their ‘characters’ within the movie are manipulated in order to get them to conform to the expected tropes. They start off like regular college-age people, with high intelligence and a healthy sense of danger, and become uninhibited, stupid and sexed up fodder for the killer’s blade.
Why? It’s less a requirement of the ritual, and more an opportunity to ridicule the constant plot holes riddling hundreds of these movies, where the plot demands that people act like idiots in order to make their dumb, killer-enabling behaviour make some kind of sense. Even when they’re not clichéd ciphers, the ‘story’ within the story demands that they act like archetypes, because, after all, cinema is a holy ritual, and rituals are meant to happen the same way every time. And this flick ‘gives’ us the explanation why things go so awry in all the ‘other’ horror flicks too, because of the architecture it creates explaining them all.
Say thankyou, you shitty horror flick directors out there; The Cabin in the Woods just explained and apologised on all your behalfs, going back thirty years. Now that’s an accomplishment.
The beauty, if such a premise can have such an adjective prefacing it, of what they’re doing is the meshing of the ancient and the contemporary, the mythic and the technological for a purpose that seems very old school in its implementation. There’s a weary acceptance of the horrible nature of the world’s continued existence, as if what’s happening to the teens (all of whom look like they’re close to thirty, which is another sly dig at the genre) is unfortunate but crucial, and it makes for a refreshing change from flicks that we’re meant to watch just to see some people die in brutal or inventive ways.
The genre is mostly played out, and this isn’t going to reinvigorate it, I hope, but this is a fun summation and a suitable elegy for a type of flick which we thought couldn’t produce anything new under the sun. And it made me laugh, which these flicks almost never do intentionally.
7 times this is the most fun I’ve had at a horror flick since Drag Me to Hell out of 10
“There is a greater good, and for that you must be sacrificed. Forgive us... and let us end it quickly.” – that’s what they always say – The Cabin in the Woods