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Cabin in the Woods (2nd Take)

Part of the reason why I started blogging was so I could have an outlet for my thoughts about movies. Nothing in all of cinema pleases me more than to leave a theater brimming over with inspiration, my head buzzing with countless thoughts just begging to be shared with like-minded film lovers. It’s an incredible feeling to discover a film you love so much that you want to sing its praises to anyone who will hear. For me, The Cabin in the Woods was one such film. When I saw it for the first time, my head was still reeling from what I’d just seen. I was chomping at the bit to put all of my observations to keyboard.

But I couldn’t.

Not only does this film have a wonderfully unique premise, but it’s also executed in such a way that discovering what’s going on is a huge part of what makes the movie fun. More than most other films in recent memory — which are made with the tacit understanding that audiences will already know all about the film after months of being swamped in advertising — this movie depends completely on the audience having no prior knowledge of the film. Yet paradoxically, the premise is developed in such a novel way that every repeat viewing will bear fruit.

I know that the time will eventually come when the film has been out long enough that movie geeks can discuss it freely. But frankly, fuck the wait. The film’s been out for a week, the new releases coming out in late April all suck, and I’m on a high after seeing the film a second time.

In this review, I will be recording my complete and unfiltered thoughts of The Cabin in the Woods. Here’s my full analysis of the film; spoilers, ending, and all. If you’ve already seen the movie, I hope you will find things in here to enjoy, to contemplate, and to discuss.

If you haven’t seen the movie, then what the hell are you waiting for? Shut your computer down and get thee to a theater before anyone spoils it for you!

I began my first review of the film with the protagonists, so I may as well do likewise now. Watching the film again, I paid much closer attention to how the main characters changed. Marty acts as a pothead throughout the whole film (thus acting as our constant comedic sounding board) and Jules opens as a horny blonde (explained by way of chemicals in the hair dye), but the characters are otherwise much more well-rounded at the outset. Dana is very mature about her sexual misadventures, and we see that Curt and Holden are both very gifted in brains as well as brawn.

It’s only over the course of the film that these characters are forcibly shaped into the standard horror archetypes. To me, this is the film’s way of calling slasher movies out on how two-dimensional their characters are. Let’s be honest: We’ve all watched a horror movie with the thought that no one could possibly be as stupid as the characters getting killed on the screen. At least this movie offers an excuse.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that the personalities of these characters are being shaped to fit the arbitrary desires of the Ancient Ones. Why five kids? Why three guys and two girls? Why these archetypes? Well, that’s just how it’s always been. No further explanation is given, and as far as the slasher genre is concerned, no further explanation is necessary. This in spite of the fact that these archetypes are totally outdated and non-existent in the real world.

The message is clear: “We’ve outgrown this cliched shit!”

Something else that caught my eye during the second viewing was Jules’ makeout scene with the mounted wolf’s head. Watching that scene again, I kept thinking that an awful lot of screen time and effort was put into such an apparently inconsequential scene. There’s so much going on in this film that there had to be some deeper meaning here. The best I can come up with is that it’s another test that the kids totally failed.

First they meet a creepy old man and completely ignore his warnings to turn back. Then they find a grisly painting and decide to take it down. Then they find a one-way mirror and shrug it off. These reactions might be questionable, and that first one is a time-honored cliche that the movie couldn’t not address, but they’re all well within suspension of disbelief.

And then we see the snarling visage of a particularly huge wolf. Jules — at the encouragement of her friends — then proceeds to caress every inch of its mouth with her tongue, even going so far as to act like the wolf is some stranger hitting on her. In context, this is like meeting an armed robber and giving his gun a blowjob. It’s such an outrageously raunchy and clueless response to such a clear sign of danger that the main characters are now fully committed to their fate. There’s absolutely no way to top it except to show them the cellar and get it over with.

Side note: I later discovered after doing some more research that Anna Hutchison used to be a Power Ranger. Granted, she was in one of the later generations (“Jungle Fury,” apparently) but yeah, Jules’ actress was a Power Ranger. This woman made out with a wolf, showed her tits to Thor, screamed her head off at the sight of zombies, and danced around in jeans that would be lingerie if they were any shorter… and she used to be an action heroine in a kids’ show. Put that in your collapsible coffee mug bong and smoke it!

All of that aside, let’s get to the villains. I realize that it may seem odd referring to Sitterson, Hadley, Lin, et al. as the villains of the movie, but let’s be honest. They’re the ones who are trying to kill the helpless teens in a slasher movie. That makes them the villains, period. Yes, they may be extremely entertaining and likeable, but that’s hardly a new thing in horror films.

One of horror cinema’s most defining traits is in how everyone loves a horror villain. It takes a very special kind of hero in horror — an Ash Campbell or a Dr. Van Helsing, for example — to step out from the shadow of their antagonists. Just look at how many people know Freddy Krueger against how many people know Nancy Thompson. Jason Voorhees is a cinema icon, and Alice Hardy is not. Ripley and Dutch both have a place in pop culture, but I’d argue that neither of them are as recognizable or as beloved as the Predators and the Xenomorphs. Then there’s the Hellraiser series, which mainstream pop culture knows pretty much nothing about except for Pinhead.

In fact, horror fans love villains so much that slasher films are made in which the audience is expected to root for the slasher! It’s what the whole “torture porn” movement was built on. The filmmakers will churn out two-dimensional numbskulls by the truckload, leading them all to the slaughter so the villain can kill them all. And the audience watches on with glee, safe in the knowledge that it’s all fiction, and the characters were so awful that their death is a well-deserved mercy anyway.

The point being that in horror films, rooting for the protagonists isn’t always a given thing. There are slashers in which we root for the protagonists, and there are slasher films in which we root for the villains. But The Cabin in the Woods may very well be the only slasher horror film in which both sides are equally sympathetic. One side is perfectly innocent and defenseless, totally undeserving of death, and the other side is trying to save the fucking world. The choice of who to root for isn’t remotely clear-cut, which is a unique and challenging thing for a horror film.

This brings me to the ending.

First of all, I liked the Sigourney Weaver cameo. Her presence brought a great deal of weight to the role of The Director, which desperately needed someone who could make a strong and charismatic impression with only a few minutes of screen time. That said, I think that Jamie Lee Curtis would have been a far better choice. After all, the Director is there to maintain the rituals and protocols of an era that refuses to die. As such, the role called for a classic Scream Queen. Someone who could’ve cemented that connection to slasher films of yesteryear. Jamie Lee Curtis had made Halloween, The Fog, and Prom Night. There are precious few actresses out there (certainly not Weaver) who can hope to match that kind of connection to slashers that defined the genre. That’s not to disparage Weaver — again, she turned in a great cameo — but it’s a missed opportunity all the same.

Anyway, let’s get back to the ending. Throughout the whole film, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that Sitterson, Hadley, and their colleagues were the audience surrogates. I suppose they are, in a way, considering that they’re looking for any entertainment they can find as relief from the drudgery of their everyday lives. But in the ending, it’s clear that the audience surrogates are meant to be the Ancient Ones. They’re the ones who insist on a preconceived and arbitrary narrative, they’re the ones who derive pleasure from the pain and suffering of innocents, they’re the ones who must be pleased at all costs, and they’re the ones who throw a hissy fit when they don’t get their way. Yes, that does make the ending a sort of “fuck you” to the audience, but to paraphrase something that a wise man once said (it might have been Guillermo del Toro, but I can’t find the quotation), one of the first duties of any horror film is to be a “fuck you.”

Horror films are meant to be challenging and shocking to their audience, which is something that goes entirely counter to films that are built by formula. As such, the film’s “fuck you” ending reinforces the filmmakers’ message that the genre will lose all of its value if it keeps rehashing the same old tropes and archetypes. Of course, the film’s literal meaning — that a world which needs wholesale slaughter to keep spinning is a world not worth dying for — carries a certain truth as well.

The concept of ritually sacrificing youths is one that could be found in several ancient cultures, and using that to expand the movie’s scope — as early as the opening credits, no less — was a brilliant move. Even if our brand of youth sacrifice is purely fictional, we’re still one of many modern cultures that spend money and time to watch young adults get butchered, for whatever reason. Hell, there are kids in Uganda — the famous “Invisible Children” — who go out to fight and die in wars that are very real. There’s something very primal and very universal in this horrible concept, and what does that say about us as a species? Asking that question — even in such an implicit way — was a very bold move on the part of the filmmakers.

The filmmakers also treated monsters in a similar way, to superlative effect. I love how the film presented terrors and threats that have been recognizable since prehistoric times, explaining them as the eternal stuff of nightmares created by the Ancient Ones. Granted, some of them have very modern shapes, but that’s easily brushed aside. There’s a clown who was clearly meant to resemble Pennywise (played by the great movement coach and mo-cap performer Terry Notary, by the way), but there’s a primal sort of fear in an innocent kid-friendly entertainer turning out to be a psychopath. There’s also an obvious Pinhead knock-off, but again, Pinhead is such an iconic character precisely because we have an innate fear of stoic giants and bodily mutilation.

Much like the main characters, the monsters in this film are all archetypes. But more than that, they’re archetypes that have been around for ages. The movie treats them as such, which opens up the movie’s scope even further. Moreover, the climax basically serves as a celebration of that dark and eternal part of humanity’s imagination where the monsters lie. After all, I’m pretty sure that the climax practically serves as the single biggest crossover in cinema history. Where else could one find werewolves, zombies, merpeople, giant snakes, evil clowns, demons, and friggin’ unicorns all working together to cause bloody mayhem? Of course, it also helped that every single creature looked absolutely phenomenal, in spite of the reported $12 million budget.

To conclude, The Cabin in the Woods does a fantastic job of saluting the creativity of the horror genre while condemning the rigid and outdated structure that horror films have been stuck in for the past few decades. As a comedy, as a horror film, as a thriller, as a mirror held up to its audience, as a harsh satire of the films to come before it, and as a damn good time at the movies in general, this film completely succeeds.

I look forward to putting it somewhere on my annual list of the year’s ten best “Wild Rides.” If we get ten better movies than this one in the coming months, then 2012 will be a year in cinema to remember.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Bill Berk:

    Tying to the ancient ones in as a reflection of the audience was brilliant. I doubt Whedon consciously had that in mind, but it works perfectly.

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